|Nina Barrett and Jeff Garrett at their bookstore.|
A pal of mine teaches in Evanston, where we sometimes meet for lunch. At Dixie Kitchen, of course, where I get the blackened catfish, every time, since I can’t conceive of liking anything better.
As satisfying an experience as that is, Evanston is off the beaten path, so while there, I try to be efficient by hitting the various cultural highlights — Comix Revolution sometimes, and, until last winter, Bookman’s Alley, the sprawling used bookstore actually located in an alley off Sherman. I started going there as a green NU sophomore, and went regularly for the next 34 years, part to browse the books, part to chat with its eternally amused owner, Roger Carlson, the last man I referred to as “Mister.”
But Bookman’s Alley closed, gradually, over years, lingering in a dim twilight of boxes and clutter. Eventually, it was shuttered around December. In mid-June, I was vectoring from Dixie Kitchen to my car, when I instinctively glanced down the alley, holding a faint flicker of hope that the store might still be there, magically. There was a blue sign that hadn’t been there before, enough to get me hoofing down the alley.
The sign was for “Bookends & Beginnings,” an aptly named bookstore that opened in mid-June in the former Bookman’s Alley space. Inside, I founded Jeff Garrett and his wife, Nina Barrett (“the copy editor isn’t going to like that,” I muttered, noting the Garrett/Barrett dichotomy). If you think your career choices are daft, Jeff and Nina (as I will call them, since Garrett/Barrett just sows confusion) have opened a bookstore. In 2014. Without Wi-Fi or coffee.
“Opening a bookstore is really overwhelming,” said Nina, who was a food reporter for WBEZ and is in charge of the store’s ample cookery section.
Jeff was head of special libraries at Northwestern for 20 years but quit to devote himself full time to the book business.
“It’s an area where our interests meet,” he said. “We both left our day jobs to start this bookstore. We’re hand-selling each book; we’re hand-curating the entire store.”
“Curating” makes me wince — what’s wrong with “picking books our customers might like” — but the hand-selling aspect is key to the bookstore experience. When I think of small bookstores at their finest, I think of the old Stuart Brent’s on Michigan Avenue, and bright-eyed Adam Brent pressing Alfred Lansing’s Endurance upon me so skillfully that I bought it even though I had no interest — I thought — in early 20th century Antarctic explorers. Masterpiece.
Bookman’s Alley had a grungy, comfortable, dusty vibe, which Bookends & Beginnings sandblasted away for something brighter, freshly painted, lighter but still homey. New books, quality remaindered sale books, a large cooking section, a big children’s section in the back. They had me at “new bookstore,” but I couldn’t help but admire the in-for-a-dime, in-for-a-dollar moxie that inspired them to install a permanent puppet theater by the children’s section.
What kind of shows will they have?
“It depends on who we can get running our puppet theater,” Jeff said.
“That’s Phase II of our plans,” Nina said.
Talk about fate! I almost volunteered on the spot to be their first artistic director: We could mount a series of Eugene O’Neill plays adapted for the puppet stage while I pursue my dream of writing Punch & Judy vignettes pegged to current events. But I figured I was already in one moribund profession and it wouldn’t do to shift to another.
Three weeks have passed since my visit, so I thought I would circle back and see, nearly a month in, how the couple are doing? Sorry yet? Divorce on the horizon?
“We’re doing great,” Jeff said. “The art fair weekend was just spectacular. I think in a year we’ll still be here.”
And still married?
It’s encouraging to see people drop established careers and make a change. When it comes to professions, we have a sad tendency to slavishly follow the general trends. If the field of law is crowded, we urge people not to be lawyers. If there’s a shortage of doctors, great, then go to medical school.
We wouldn’t do that in other aspects of life — if a friend said he was marrying a blonde, you wouldn’t say, no, marry a brunette, studies show they get divorced less.
The lone factor in choosing a career should be: Are you happy doing it? Then you can do the hard work needed to succeed, and if you don’t, hey, you’re still doing what you love. The message behind someone opening a bookstore in Evanston is not only that there’s a new bookstore in Evanston, but it’s never too late to chase your dreams.