Friday, July 11, 2014

Bookstores can't die if new ones keep being born

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. 


  1. The best bookstore in Chicago is THE SEMINARY now located next to the U of C B-School in Hyde Park.

    The Barnes & Noble in Evanston depresses me. 95% of its in store selection is garbage. That is to be expected but not in a college town such as Evanston.

    I only have time to read the fiction on someone’s list of Great Books.* I do need advice as to the best translations for the foreign language stuff. There is a big controversy on how best to translate Russian literature -- especially Dostoevsky.

    I love buying a second hand book with some else’s margin notes. My copy of Moby Dick has both mine and an earlier reader’s margin notes. That easily impressed my wife when she started reading my copy.

    *The exception in good sci fi by Lem, Asimov, and Herbert and good porn by Lawrence, Nin, and the southern lady that wrote Sleeping with Soldiers.


    1. Jerry,

      The new Seminary location is very nice, but I preferred the cavernous old labyrinth. Where's the fun if you can see daylight and can't occasionally hit your head on a pipe while browsing the phenomenal selection? ; )

    2. Jakash:

      I somewhat agree.

      But I thought if I were to ever burn to death in a fire it would be there.

      As far as I could tell there was one way out of a "cavernous old labyrinth"" filed with highly flammable paper.

      BTW: I always liked you. Could you give me a rough idea of where you live, age, and what you do for a living. If not then -- no problema and no poblamo. When you and I were trying to woo MOPerina you told us whom you resemble.


    3. Good point about the limited options in case of fire, I suppose. Glad that never occurred to me while I was in there!

  2. Bookman's Alley was one of my regular stops as well, thank you for mentioning that there's a new book store to drool over.

  3. Neil, So I take it you want to be John Cusack being John Malkovich? Janet M Fendrych

  4. For the life of me, I can't figure out what "curate" means. Your definition doesn't seem to fit all the uses I've read, not heard. I don't know how you're supposed to pronounce it either. When it meant a priest, it was pronounced /cure et/ with the emphasis on the penultimate syllable. I love bookstores, but buy my books from Amazon. For shame, I know.

    1. It's pronounced "cure-rate" and my impression is that it's a verbal back formation from "curator" -- it refers to picking stuff out, carefully, the way a museum curator selects items for an exhibit. Hence the source of my gentle mockery; it's a fancy way of saying, "We pick the books our customers might like."


      is worse than any bookstore. Respect all booksellers.

      -Orland Parker.

  5. I wish this couple well.

    As a devotee of Barnes & Nobles, I would point the booksellers to Urbana, Illinois. There is a co-op organic health food store that sources as locally as possible, and an Art Theatre that shows classic and film noirs. Again, a co-op.

    Capitalism is the ideal business model; it's produced the world's best medicine and entertainment (think Dave and Buster's downtown and in Schaumburg and Orland Park.)

    But a co-op allows one to invest in a community good while doing good. And that's something good to read about.


  6. Why is Evanston so off the beaten path? I live southwest and I've been to Bookman's Alley and I'd love to find this new place. But Evanston is do hard to drive to..really. Barbara M. Palmer

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. “'Curating' makes me wince — what’s wrong with 'picking books our customers might like.'”

    Another line that makes me happy to read what you write.


  9. Good luck to them. As Calvin Trillin says, good used bookstores are like bad South American dictatorships - they rarely get passed on to a second generation.

  10. Some people neva leave college/university, some teach it.

  11. Wait. Is this the Nina Barrett who wrote The Playgroup?

  12. My wife and I must check out this book store. Thanks for letting everyone know about it, Neil.

  13. With all of the hoopla surrounding the opening of this welcome addition to the Chicago/Evanston biblio scene, let's not overlook longtime Evanston bookstore Amaranth Books, a block or so south of Bookends & Beginnings/Bookman's Alley on Davis St. Amaranth has been in business at that location for nearly 25 years and it terms of selection, price, condition and just plain interesting stock, it never fails to disappoint.

    1. I didn't overlook it. The owner is never very friendly when I go in. So in that sense, it does disappoint. Books are great though, so I go in anyway.

  14. Hope to see you Thursday. I guess sadly no dining at Dixie.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.