My hometown has an admirable, almost perverse dedication to shopping local. During my high school years, “Support your local economy” bumper stickers were as ubiquitous as college logos and Dave Matthews Band sprites. It’s a lifestyle that I cling to in Chicago: indies over chains, always always always. If I have the option to support an independent business over a corporation, I will. (This doesn’t always work, but I’m not ashamed of my H&M-loving ways. A girl and her budget need to choose their battles sometimes, and clothing is a different story than, say, jewelry, food or entertainment.)
This month marks the last sad gasp of Borders, at once the bane of many a mom’n’pop store and sometimes the only place to get books for miles around, if you live in certain parts of the country. Plenty of people, including former employees, are speaking up about why they’re not surprised to see it go, and plenty of others are lamenting its downfall. (As for myself, one of my fondest memories of Borders actually has nothing to do with being inside one. I passed by the store on North Avenue while riding the Brown Line on the night of the final Harry Potter book release, and the entire place looked like one big party.) But the fact remains that 11,000 bookselling jobs will be gone in this country by Labor Day, and the publishing industry is struggling enough as it is.
This is a great opportunity for consumers (us!) to remember that Chicago is home to some of the most fabulous independent bookstores out there. If you know and love the business below, I hope you find yourself nodding along, and if you’re not familiar with these great shops yet, I hope you have a fabulous time discovering them!
57th Street Books (1301 East 57th St., Hyde Park) is, admittedly, my best beloved in this city. This unassuming subterranean storefront opens up into rooms and room and rooms of shelves, all full of the most fantastic selections in any genre, field or interest you could imagine. There’s always some incredible author event going on, and I’ve definitely found surprise autographed copies of some really big names while browsing. 57th Street is part of the Seminary Co-op, and the equally magnificent academic bookstore is just a few blocks away in its new digs (5751 S. Woodlawn Ave.)
Unabridged Bookstore (3251 N. Broadway, Lakeview) is my home away from Hyde Park. I almost never manage to leave this place without a new hardback I’d have never discovered if not for their great displays at the front of the store. Their online newsletter is equally culpable; I always wind up with three or four new titles on my to-read list when it comes.
Women and Children First (5233 N. Clark St., Andersonville) is a smaller store, but it more than makes up for size with selection. If you’re into socially conscious material, whether it’s an exposé of political injustice or simply great works by overlooked writers, you’ll find it here.
Open Books (213 W. Institute Pl., River North) is actually a nonprofit organization dedicated to literacy in the Chicago area. They operate a beautiful storefront run by volunteers just off the Chicago Brown Line stop, and all merchandise comes from donations. Books + good causes = win-win all around.
Some of my favorite bookstores in the city are actually comic shops. I consider Chicago Comics(3244 N. Clark St., Lakeview) my own personal grand dame of sequential storytelling. Don’t be intimidated by the idea of comics or being “nerdy” (which is the best and only way to be, as far as I’m concerned): the staff is always helpful and eager to share the best and brightest from this awesome art form. It’s not all just superheroes too – you’ll find incredible stories touching on everything from immigrant experiences to civil rights to new interpretations of the Great Books themselves.
Comics will absolutely surprise and delight you if you let them. Alley Cat Comics (5304 N. Clark St. – Rear, Andersonville) only just opened, but they won me over with one chance visit, not just because of their super charming location (look for the neat ironwork sign in the alley that leads to the store!), but because they had a print copy of my favorite webcomic ever (Gunnerkrigg Court, for the curious) in stock, without anyone having to order it by special request. Alley Cat Comics has also been running a weekly free movie night on Saturdays, so keep an eye on them for more great events.
All of these indies, I’d like to add, will happily order anything you want, not to mention you’ll get to talk to a real human being about what you want. If avoiding real human beings is how you like your book-shopping, I promise you, powells.com has the selection of Amazon and much less of the evilness (search “Amazon fail” for a taste).
I know I’ve missed dozens of other great local indies in Chicago. If you’ve got one that should be on this list, let me know in the comments! I’m always thrilled to find my way to another locally owned bookstore. IndieBound, another great website, also makes it easy to find your nearest independent sellers, no matter where you are. Borders may be on the way out, but bookstores don’t have to be. Just because it’s on a bumper sticker doesn’t mean it’s not true – support your local economy! Independent booksellers and other readers will thank you for it.