“I got my very first collectible book when I was about 13 years old,” says Doug Phillips. “After school, practically every day, I would go to this wonderful bookshop called Main Street Bookstore, which stood where the Marriott hotel is now on Michigan Avenue. There was a lady that worked there named Mrs. Vandermark, and she was a very colorful, really nice lady, who was very helpful in getting me involved with books.” Captivated by the musical The King and I, Phillips enlisted Mrs. Vandermark to track down Anna Leonowens’s memoir, The English Governess at the Siamese Court, on which it was based. He still has the volume, but “it would take wild horses to get me to sell it.”
Phillips is loath to part with many of his books; his collection of rare first editions once grew so large the weight buckled the attic floor of his parents’ near-north-side home. His transition from collector to dealer began in 1998, when he decided to sell his interest in the family insurance business, Phillips Brothers, to his brother. “Phillips Brothers goes back to 1873,” he says, and he’d worked there since college, “so it was kind of a daring thing for me to leave the family nest, so to speak.” He had become convinced that downtown Chicago needed a world-class antiquarian bookstore. “Chicago used to be a wonderful rare book town in the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s,” he says. “But unfortunately, over the years a lot of the booksellers passed away or closed shop. Now, believe it or not, I’m really the only open rare-book shop in the Loop. There are other cities, like New York, San Francisco, and Boston, that are much stronger book towns than Chicago, but Chicago has a very, very rich literary tradition.”
Phillips’s vision for his store was born out of this wistfulness for an era of distinguished booksellers and cozy but refined bookshops. “There was a very, very famous bookman in the early part of the 1900s, A.E.S. Rosenbach, who had a wonderful bookstore. In his biography, which is just an amazing book to read, there are several pictures of his store, and I sort of loosely based my shop on his in New York. I don’t think my shop is as grand as his, but that was sort of my fantasy that I worked off of.”
After searching for a year and a half, Phillips settled on the site of a dentist’s office in the Donahue Building at 715 S. Dearborn, in Printer’s Row, where The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was first published 100 years ago. Looking past the dentist chairs and drills, Phillips became enamored with the space’s high tin ceilings and the literary karma of the neighborhood. Browsing around the surrounding streets, he poked his head into Prairie Avenue Bookshop at 418 S. Wabash and found someone who could help implement his dream.
Renowned Chicago architect and preservationist Wilbert Hasbrouck and his wife, Marilyn, founded Prairie School Press in 1961, reprinting and selling important works by and about, among others, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1964 the Hasbroucks established the quarterly journal Prairie School Review, which they published for 14 years and supported in part from the sales of books on the Chicago and Prairie Schools. After acquiring a building on Prairie Avenue, the Hasbroucks decided to open a bookshop on the ground floor, with Marilyn as proprietor. But the store soon outgrew that space, and in 1978–around the time Doug Phillips was embarking on his insurance career–Prairie Avenue Bookshop moved to 711 S. Dearborn, two doors from Phillips’s find. After 17 years the Hasbroucks moved again, to their current space on Wabash. Designed in the spirit of the Prairie School masters, the 9,000-square-foot store has original furniture by Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier and is widely recognized as one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. Phillips, looking around in awe, knew he had to find the architect. He asked a young man, who proved to be the Hasbroucks’ son John, if he happened to know who it was. “Well, it was my dad,” he replied.
“Doug’s a pretty straightforward guy,” says Wilbert Hasbrouck. “He said, ‘I’m going to open a bookshop, could you help me on this?’ I said, ‘Well, I’d love to help you, but I’ve retired.'” They continued to talk, however, and Hasbrouck was surprised to learn that not only did Phillips already have a space, but it was just down from Prairie Avenue Bookshop’s former location. “I said, ‘I know that space very well, because my wife’s bookshop used to be the exact mirror image.'” He agreed to help Phillips, suggesting he take the plan for 711 S. Dearborn, reverse it, and see what he could come up with. Hasbrouck was intrigued by Phillips’s vision for the store. “He said, ‘What I want is a brand-new century-old bookshop.’ And I said, ‘Well, we’ll try.’ After all, the building’s a century old.”
To achieve an elegant Edwardian look on a relatively modest budget, Hasbrouck and Phillips scoured architectural salvage shops, unearthing treasures such as the 19th-century lead glass bookcase doors that protect the pricier volumes, a hefty fireplace mantel from a funeral parlor, and a vintage cash register. Royal Minton tiles depicting various Shakespeare plays were arranged by Marilyn Hasbrouck around the small electric fireplace, whose mica-sleeved bulbs produce a warm sepia glow. A bookcase on the north wall was once used as a beer mug case in a British pub, and the standing display cases came from a 1930s jewelry shop. Replica Prairie-style lamps illuminate a sturdy reading table, and Oriental rugs cover the wood floors. John Hasbrouck designed the old-fashioned logo for the window and awning, and framed letters and photographs of figures like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, John Steinbeck, Louisa May Alcott, and Margaret Mitchell hang on the hunter green and salmon pink walls.
“It’s supposed to look like an old-time English bookstore, but I hope it’s not too ‘ye olde,’ like Disneyland or something,” says Phillips. “Bill Hasbrouck did a sensational job, I just can’t say that enough. I think it’s very important that booksellers stick together, like Macy’s and Gimbel’s in Miracle on 34th Street.”
Phillips opened Printers Row Fine & Rare Books in October 2000. “Basically my collection was my inventory,” he says of those first days. “It was very, very hard to part with some of those items. When I first opened, I remember selling some of my books, like the first edition of The Great Gatsby in dust jacket, and I was just crestfallen. Because the way that I look at it, once you sell a Gatsby, it’s gone. You might never see another copy in dust jacket again. But I said to myself if I was going to do this as a business, I had to wear the hat of a dealer rather than a collector. This isn’t a museum, it’s a shop.”
Shortly after opening he hired veteran bookseller Joe Fort to help him out. Fort, a lean 38-year-old with a narrow face and a shy smile, points out prized editions with quiet pride. He ran his own used-book store in Forest Park for 13 years, and Phillips was a frequent customer. Fort’s years in the business have helped Phillips make up for his own lack of retail experience.
The 2,000-square-foot space houses approximately 5,000 volumes spanning five centuries, from the 1500s through the present. Two small back rooms hold a selection of moderately priced volumes, mostly first editions. The main room displays the rare editions, defined by Phillips as meeting two requirements: “Rare books have to be scarce…and they have to be important.” Examples arranged neatly in the antique glass cases include a Shakespeare Second Folio; first editions of Ulysses, On the Road, Tender Is the Night, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; signed first editions of Gone With the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird; and inscribed editions of The Catcher in the Rye, The Fountainhead, and For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Although the shop specializes in 19th- and 20th-century fiction, Phillips also carries nonfiction and many other items: a first edition of Darwin’s The Origin of Species; an autographed Iris Murdoch philosophy manuscript; a framed letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald to an editor in which Fitzgerald praises the work of Gertrude Stein; a first English edition of the score for Wagner’s Ring cycle from 1877; and a letter from John Steinbeck to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of The Yearling.
“This is really a dream job,” says Phillips. “So much better than insurance, it really is.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Audrey Cho.