What distinguishes a great bookstore?
Take, for example, Anderson’s Bookshop. It could be lifted from its foundations in downtown Naperville, loaded onto a large flatbed truck, and carefully moved 38 miles to Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, but it wouldn’t work. A store that was ideal in its small suburban setting would look out of place next to the University of Chicago.
A great bookstore is a good fit for its neighborhood. It shapes itself to the needs of the people it serves, whether they’re from a specific geographic area, like the North Shore residents who frequent the Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, or they’re interested in a specific subject, like the architecture fans who frequent the Prairie Avenue Bookshop in the Loop.
Of course, it must also have a large selection of books and other printed materials, as well as knowledgeable, helpful staff and a welcoming and comfortable environment.
But the true litmus test will be how well it serves its community. That is the most important criterion Tempo used in selecting Chicago’s ten best bookstores, which are listed alphabetically below.
Because we value community, there are no chain stores on our list. Chains, by definition, are designed to be one-size-fits-all. A Borders in the Uptown neighborhood will be similar to those in Oklahoma City or Tallahassee.
Few chain store managers can relate the story told by Jack Cella, general manager of the Seminary Co-op in Hyde Park:
Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, an astrophysicist who received the Nobel Prize in 1983, was a longtime customer who would frequently strike up a conversation with Cella about physics and literature. Cella claims that after Chandrasekhar died in 1995, “his widow came in and said that, in his will, he wanted his ashes scattered at five places.”
” 7 Best bookstores in Chicago “
Yes, Anderson’s has a diverse selection of books that are well displayed. But it’s more than just a bookstore; it’s woven into the fabric of Naperville. The store not only organizes the annual Naperville Reads program, but also hosts the city library’s book group meetings. Not only do staffers work with 120 local book clubs, but the store also outlines the major titles coming out from publishers twice a year for representatives from those clubs. Anderson’s hosts approximately 350 in-store and in-school author appearances per year, or roughly one per day. The store’s relationship with the community dates back more than a century. Its owners, the Anderson family, have had one or more businesses in town since 1875.
LOCATION: Naperville, 123 W. Jefferson Ave (630-355-2665)
Walking into this store off an alley in downtown Evanston is like stumbling into the set of a calm but surreal film, with parts living room, private library, and bookstore. Among the well-preserved used hardcover books are vintage desks, couches, chairs, tables, saddles, hats, busts, an archery set, a stuffed hawk, and other oddities, none of which are for sale. It’s an inviting and comfortable environment, and the approach has allowed the store to thrive for nearly three decades despite competition from waves of Evanston bookstores that have come and gone – as well as the presence of a Borders and a Barnes & Noble within two blocks. Among the 40,000 books in the shop are several thousand more expensive collectibles, such as a $12,500 first edition of Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
LOCATION: Evanston, 1712 Sherman Ave., rear (847-869-6999)
The Book Stall at Chestnut Court
This 75-year-old general-interest store serving the affluent North Shore suburbs places a premium on customer service. All year long, free gift wrapping is available. When a parent or grandparent enrolls a child in the store’s book club (which now has 250 members), a new book is hand-selected and sent to that child’s home each month. Each week, the store hosts up to a dozen author appearances, some in the store and some at private clubs in the Loop, such as the Union League Club, which is home to several local residents. Owner Roberta Rubin and the 19 employees, some of whom have been with the company for 20 years or more, greet many customers by name as they walk through the front door.
LOCATION: Winnetka, 811 Elm St. (847-446-8880) (The published address has been corrected in this text.)
Centuries & Sleuths
One side of the shop is devoted entirely to mysteries. All history books are on the other side. But this isn’t just a bookstore. Just take a look at the old church pew in the store’s center. Three small metal plates are nailed into the wood, each commemorating a deceased store customer. Augie Aleksy, the owner, likes – really likes – his customers and the feeling is mutual. Every New Year’s Eve, ten customer-friends volunteer to assist with inventory. They join him in putting on history/mystery plays, participate in book groups together, and dress up as historical characters for a “Meeting of the Minds” discussion once a year, borrowing a page from the old Steve Allen show.
LOCATION: Forest Park, 7419 W. Madison St. (708-771-7243)
Gemini Fine Books & Arts
You must make an appointment to enter this store, which is located in the basement of a private home on a residential street. However, if you enjoy art and finely crafted books, be sure to request one. Although most sales are made through the Internet, owner Arik Verezhensky, a Russian emigrant, is eager to show off his 3,000 rare and out-of-print art reference works, which rank among the best in the country. But it’s even more entertaining to watch him as he reverently takes one of his 2,000 livres d’artiste from his shelves. A livre d’artiste combines a literary text with original etchings, lithographs, or aquatints by a great artist. For example, a book of 20 poems by Spanish poet Luis de Gongora y Argote, with original etchings by Pablo Picasso and a binding by master binder Georges Leroux, is on the store’s shelves for $69,000.
LOCATION: Hinsdale, 917 Oakwood Ter (630-986-1478)
Powell’s, like the Hyde Park neighborhood in which it is located, has a tweedy, scholarly vibe. Instead of the flash and frivolous trinkets found in many modern bookstores, the emphasis here is on used books – thousands upon thousands of them. The store, which has particularly strong literature, history, and art sections, also specializes in well-selected remainders, which are new books that did not sell as well as the original publisher expected. Powell’s selects those that are likely to appeal to its academic clientele and sells them at a much lower price, such as the 3,000 copies of a local state senator’s memoir that the store had in stock long before Barack Obama made a national name for himself at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The bookstore has locations in the Lake View and South Loop neighborhoods, as well as a warehouse with 3 million books.
LOCATION: Chicago, 1501 E. 57th St. (773-955-7780)
The Prairie Avenue Bookshop
Even if you’re not a fan of architecture and related arts, this is a delightful store to visit, with its elegant classic furniture, such as a 13-foot-long oval banker’s table, and architectural artifacts from beautiful buildings that are no longer standing as ornamentation. The shop is a mecca for architects from Chicago and around the world. Its 6,500 titles and 50,000 books make it one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of works on building design and construction. It was dubbed “the best architectural bookshop in the world” by the London Financial Times. Although the shop has the appearance of a library, the books are for sale rather than for study. Taking notes is not permitted.
LOCATION: Chicago, 418 S. Wabash Ave. (800-474-2724)
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