Desiderius Erasmus once famously said, “When I get a little money, I buy books. If any is left, I buy food and clothes.” Sure, there’s some extremity to that point of view, but I see where he’s coming from. Books are beautiful and powerful things. They’re surprisingly effective at making people smarter and more attractive. A collection of books can vastly improve the appearance of a wall, and a few well-chosen ones look quite good on coffee table. Actual books (i.e. those not of the e-book format) don’t have to be turned off on an airplane. Also, they make really good gifts. So, whether buying for yourself or others, here’s a list of the best local bookshops to visit.
My fondest memory of the original Barbara’s on Wells is of seeing David Foster Wallace give a reading a little while after his now classic Infinite Jest was released. It obliterated any lingering notion that author readings are patently boring affairs. Anyway, that shop is now gone but there are several other Barbara’s outposts, several of them smaller, convenient shops in places like Northwestern Hospital, Macy’s and Willis Tower, as well as suburban locations in Burr Ridge and Glenview. Their current main location is the one near UIC, where David Sedaris once drew me a picture of Abraham Lincoln with a bubble quote that read “freedom is scary.”
Book Cellar is a clean, well-organized store with a carefully selected inventory of new books. There’s also a café that serves beer, wine and food along with the usual beverages. Add to all that steady a calendar of events for all ages and tastes, and you’ve got the kind of community-oriented business that makes Lincoln Square a desirable place to live and shop.
Okay, it’s not technically in Chicago, but it’s close, and accessible via CTA. In any case, Bookman’s Alley makes the list because it is more than just a bookstore. It’s a quaint and magical hideaway that’s more like an homage to the bookstore experience, with an evident appreciation for the book as one of life’s most essential commodities. Erasmus would have felt at home here. It also doesn’t hurt that the prices are very fair. If you were looking for a reason to visit Evanston other than a football game or a concert at SPACE, this is it.
Unfortunately, Bookman’s Alley will be closing soon, so make it there before they’re gone forever! We’ve covered their unfortunate woes in an article, which you can find here.
While the South Loop Powell’s unfortunately closed a while back, the two remaining stores each offer over 250,000 books, ranging from discounted newer items to older rarities. Powell’s obviously chooses their selection of remainders wisely. It’s common to find all sorts of groovy titles at a third (or less) of the retail price, in brand-new condition (except maybe for a the occasional remainder mark). The Lakeview shop seems to offer the best selection of out-of-print art books in the city, too.
Quimby’s is an emporium of strange and wonderful publications, and provides for some of the most fun browsing in town. Graphic novels? Plenty. Cheap and cool zines? Indeed. Hard-to-find art & design books? Yes, ma’am. Unique children’s books? Totally. Don’t let the “edgy” nature of the inventory make you feel as if you’re not the correct demographic, though. There are books and non-book items here that will appeal to readers and non-readers of all stripes.
Printer's Row Fine and Rare Books
This shop is like a newly-spun spiderweb to serious bibliophiles—it’s nearly impossible to leave quickly without a struggle. The vintage bookcases are loaded with mylar-jacketed antiquarian goodies. It’s the kind of shop book collectors seek out in every city they visit. The last time I was there, the customer in front of me was a Chinese diplomat making a sizeable and enviable purchase. Prices, of course, reflect the “fine and rare” aspect, but the inventory here is investment-grade.
Ravenswood Used Books
Ravenswood Used Books is either the city’s smallest bookstore, or it just seems like it from the way inventory occupies nearly every available square inch. Sure, it gets a little crowded at times, but browsers can usually find a comfortable little corner for themselves among the stacks. Everything’s fairly priced and the selection is consistently good, particularly for Chicago-related books.
For new books in the South Loop, Sandmeyer’s the place to go. A true mom & pop establishment, the shop has a classic Printer’s Row storefront and a solid inventory of new releases, travel guides, children’s books and more. Those who prefer a quieter bookstore environment should consider this one a safe bet, too. The store turns 30 next year, and will hopefully enjoy many more decades at this location. It wouldn’t quite be Printer’s Row without it.