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11 not the only chapter for Chicago bookstores

Today’s column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)

11 not the only chapter for Chicago bookstores

The WISCH LIST

March 5, 2011

I always have words on my mind.

But last weekend, I had books on it, too.

So, I went out and bought one.

You know, the real thing – actual wood-pulp-and-ink pages, not pixilated ones. And I even made my purchase at an actual bookstore.

I felt like a rebel.

And I also felt pretty good.

With the emergence of Apple’s iPad (which I own) and the spread of Amazon.com’s Kindle (which I don’t), the printed word during the past year has fallen under new assault. Not unlike newspapers before them, books – and, in turn, bookstores – have become endangered as consumers increasingly opt to use e-readers or order their print copies from the Internet while wearing pajamas.

However, last weekend the Chicago Tribune reported that a funny thing has happened on the way to the bargain bin: independent bookstores – once seemingly headed the way of the dodo – now actually appear more stable than big-box retailers such as Borders (in bankruptcy) and Barnes & Noble (reportedly for sale).

How’s that for writing a comeback story?

“They got through their own valley of death,” Scott Lubeck, executive director of the New York City-based Book Industry Study Group said about the nation’s approximately 1,500 surviving indie bookstores, down from a one-time high of 4,000. “I see many, many independent booksellers, and I think they’re going to continue to thrive. There’s no question about it: The bookstore is still the most powerful instrument to connect a reader with a book.”

That it is, and last weekend to reconnect this writer with a bookstore, I drove to Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood to visit The Book Cellar (4736 N. Lincoln Ave.), one of about 50 independent shops left in the city and suburbs.

It was inside the cozy shop – there’s even a wine bar – that I bought my latest book (“Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago,” by legendary newspaper columnist Mike Royko) and chatted up customers about the future of neighbhorhood bookstores, which can provide as much vibrance and sense of community as any corner restaurant or tavern.

“I’m one of those bookstore people who have refused to buy a Kindle,” 28-year-old Chicagoan Ingrid Payne told me as we stood among The Book Cellar’s stacks. “I have friends who have said to give it a try, that they’re addicted to their Kindle. But, for me, there’s just a certain nostalgia to bookstores.

“It’s the sensory experience of coming here. You can walk down the aisles, see the colors of the book covers, touch things, browse … But I think it’s a generational thing. I don’t think kids in high school today probably come to bookstores.”
Probably not. But that hardly means bookstores should go away. I can live with my local video rental store closing up, but if city bookstores were to completely vanish, well, that will be a sad day in Chicago.

And America.

Truth be told, I now buy more books for my iPad than my bookshelves, which have little space left to store anything. And I’ve found it surprisingly fun to read books electronically. As with newspapers, I embrace both print and digital and see beauty in each.

However, a bookstore is far more than just a building, it’s an experience. And while we may see fewer big retailers – I’m already missing the shuttered Borders along North Michigan Avenue – to know that indie shops are preserving a niche for word lovers the way vintage record shops provide haven for music buffs does warm this writer’s heart.

It’s a comforting to hear the rumor of every bookstores’ death has been greatly exaggerated, as Mark Twain might have said in this digital era.

Or, I suppose, tweeted it.