Chicago Independent bookstore Day a big draw even with Amazon competition

By Igor Studenkov For the Chronicle Media

As the name implies, Wicker Park’s Volumes Bookcafe has a cafe in the front and the bookstore in the back. (Photo by Igor Studenkov/for Chronicle Media)

Even as the clouds turned into full-fledged pouring rain, hundreds of shoppers went from one independent bookstore to another, to shop and to get enough tickets to get some discounts.

April 29 marked the fourth time Chicago independent bookstores celebrated the Independent Bookstore Day. But it was the first one since opened a physical bookstore, and the first one since bookstores in Chicago and its suburbs responded by forming the Chicagoland Independent Bookstore Alliance. As the store owners and staff that spoke to the Chronicle see it, the online retailer seeks to disrupt a field they are passionate about for reasons that have little to do with books or its readers.

But while they weren’t pleased about Amazon, most of the staff preferred to focus on the customers the event was bringing in, and the growing camaraderie between the bookstore owners that made it possible. And, in spite of the weather, they all said they had a good turnout.

The first Chicago Independent Bookstore was held June 12, 2014, and it included nine bookstores. While most of those stores were located on the North Side, Powell Books’ University Village location was represented as well, as were Hyde Park’s Seminary Co-Op bookstore and the co-op’s 57th Street Books. According to a Publishers Weekly report, this brought increase in sales that exceeded the participants expectations. In 2015, it was held on May 2, in conjunction with first nation-wide Independent Bookstore Day. That time around, three more bookstores, all of which were only open for a few years by that point – Logan Square’s Uncharted Books, Roscoe Village’s Roscoe Books and Open Books’ Pilsen location – joined in.

Since then, Powell’s Books closed its University Village location, leaving only its original Hyde Park location, while Uptown’s,Shake, Rattle and Read book and record store closed altogether when its owner retired. But the city also saw several new bookstores emerge, including Wicker Park’s Volumes Bookcafe, and Lincoln Park’s Read it and Eat, a food-orientated bookstore that has its own built-in kitchen for in-store demonstrations.

Read It and Eat, a food-orientated Lincoln Park bookstore, celebrated its second anniversary during the 2017 Chicago Independent Bookstore Day. (Photo by Igor Studenkov/for Chronicle Media)

When Amazon announced the opening of its bookstore in October 2016, 24 city and suburban bookstores joined forces to create CIBA. Many of the city bookstores that have been taking part in the Independent Bookstore Day from the beginning, such as Lincoln Square’s Book Cellar, Printer’s RowSandmeyer’s Bookstore, and Women & Children First, an iconic Andersonville feminist bookstore, joined in. But the alliance also has some noticeable absences. Logan Square’s City Lit bookstore, another veteran participant, didn’t join, and neither did the nearby Uncharted.

City Lit owner Teresa Kirschbraun declined to comment on the matter, while Uncharted owner Tanner McSwain was unavailable for comment before the deadline.

Jennifer and Brant McKee, co-owners of Avondale-based Buckets O’ Blood Books and Records, said that they weren’t part of the CIBA, but they are currently trying to join.

“It’s a cool idea,” Jennifer McKee said. “We like what they’re doing.”

So far, most of CIBA’s efforts have been limited to its Facebook page, which gathered together its embers’ event listings in one place. But when the Independent Bookstore Day came around, they decided to do something special.

In the past, bookstores put together activities to encourage shoppers to visit as many participants as possible. In 2015, for example, readers had to visit all 12 particpating bookstores to collect the entire short story by Stuart Dybek.

This time around, CIBA did the My Chicago Bookstore Challenge. Customers who bought at least $25 worth of goods could ask for a carabiner and a “luggage tag” — a large piece of laminated cardboard paper with the rules of challenge and a uniquely designed tear-off index card at the bottom. Every time customers stopped by a CIBA store, they could collect another tag. Getting 10 tags entitled them to a 10 percent discount at all of the stores they got the tags from for an entire year, and getting 15 tags got them a 15 percent discount under the same terms.

The owners and staff at CIBA who spoke to the Chroncle said they got decent traffic.

For Bookie’s Paperbacks and More, of Far South Side’s Beverly neighborhood, this was the second independent bookstore day. Mary Kushay, the store’s bookseller said that, as of early afternoon, Bookie’s got decent traffic.

“We had a couple of rushes, and everyone has been happy,” she said. “Everybody has been supporting [us as] a bookstore in our community, and it means so much to us.”

Kevin Elliot, a manager at 57th Street Books, also reported decent crowds. As the evening approached, he said he saw only one person complete the bookstore challenge, but he was sure there would be more soon.

“Since we’re, like, in the Magnificent Mile of bookstores, we’ll have a whole lot of people coming in late [in the day],” he said.

Rebecca George, co-owner of Volumes Bookcafe, was also pleased with the attendance

“We had hundreds of people here,” she said. “It’s been a great day. We had lots of fun.”

Many of the stores that weren’t part of CIBA still took part in Independent Bookstore Day. Like other participants, City Lit sold some Independent Bookstore Day merchandise, as well as some events and giveaways for customers.

The Chicago Independent Bookstore Day display at Women & Children First, Andersonville’s iconic feminist bookstore. (Photo by Igor Studenkov/for Chronicle Media)

“We had a great storytime in the morning,” Kirschbraun said. “We had cookies and coffee. We had book giveaways and poster giveaways.”

Her store got some decent crowds, especially in the first half of the day.

“We have people waiting [at the door] 15 minutes before we opened,” Kirschbraun said. “We have a lot of people throughout the day, until it started raining really hard.”

Even then, she said some people still came in, which surprised and impressed her every time.

The bookstore owners and staff that spoke to the Chronicle didn’t see Amazon as a threat.

“I think it’s not something books need to worry about, especially strong, independent bookstores,” Elliot said.

Kushay said that she and her employer weren’t too concerned, either.

“We had a lot of people saying they’re sticking with us, saying that can get things here they can’t get [on Amazon],” she said.

Neither was Kirschbraun.

“My feeling is that, first of all, Chicago is the city of neighborhoods,” she said. “In Logan Square, people will stand by Logan Square [businesses]. And I feel that people come here because we offer something Amazon can’t.”

That said, they still took a dim view of Amazon’s efforts. George said that it was a matter of principle.

“It’s just really an affront to us,” she said. “It’s more of a philosophical quibble than a business one. It’s more offensive then threatening. It’s like – how dare you?”

Elliot believed that e-commerce giant’s new bookstore wasn’t about books themselves.

“I think their whole scheme, their whole purpose is customer spending data and get into the retail transaction business,” he said. “They never made money in books [online], but books were a way to enter online space. I think it’s their way to feel out how to [operate] a physical retail space.”

And while the staff and the owners said there were challenges, overall, they struck an optimistic tone.

Beverly’s Bookie’s Paperbacks and More is one of the few Chicago bookstores sout of 58th Street. (Photo by Igor Studenkov/for Chronicle Media)

Elliot said he believed that the great strengths of independent bookstores are customer service and offering unique selections — something that Kirschbraun and Kushay echoed.

“{Our shelves] are curated by our people, bu the community, rather than reviews on some website,” Kirschbraun said. “People like knowing us. It’s just a much more personal experience.”

“We are really gung-ho about expanding our inventory, so that we can encompass every single person’s interest, because we get such diverse [customers],” Kushay said.

In fact, Bookie’s is gearing up for an expansion. According to the store’s Facebook page, they are in the process of moving to a larger space on the nearby Western Avenue. Once the move happens, the current location will be converted into the store’s event space.

Elliot sees the future of independent bookstores in deepening community engagement and becoming more of a community resource, citing Women & Children First, as well as the Seminary Co-Op’s own efforts, as examples.

“We have done a great job at increasing our event offerings, not only in our stores, but all over the city,” he said. “We really try to be a partner of the community as much as a great bookstore people can come to.”

Elliot said that, in the changing economy, the bookstores don’t necessarily see each other as competitors — they want to be successful on their own, but they have increasingly been working together. CIBA is just one part of it.

“I think we’re really in it together, as much as we’re in it for our own [goals],” he mused. “We celebrate the community aspect of it.”

George said that, whatever may happen in the future, she thinks that interest in physical books would always be there.

“I think people like reading in print and are ditching their [tablets],” she said. “There’s something about books that’s not going to go away.”



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— Chicago Independent bookstore Day a big draw even with Amazon competition —