CHICAGO — It's the "City of Big Shoulders," of factories belching smoke, of smokey blues joints, of legendary gangsters and hard-nosed ward heelers . . . and of the best bookstores in the United States.
That's a tall claim. Bookstores aren't exactly what Chicago is famous for. Manhattan is the frenzied headquarters of the publishing industry, Boston is academia's City on a Hill and the San Francisco Bay nurtures an endless stream of innovative writers and small presses.
But for visitors to Chicago, weary of the clamor of the Loop and the upscale bustle of the Magnificent Mile, an excursion through the city's many independent bookshops opens a startling window on a community passionately intoxicated with literary culture.
Perhaps it's the city's distance from the centers of literary fashion on the East and West coasts, but in most Chicago bookstores, shopkeepers, buyers and browsers alike seem more interested in what actually sits between a book's covers than its place on a best-seller list.
Whatever the reason, the town that's produced such literary luminaries as Gwendolyn Brooks, Nelson Algren and Saul Bellow is today home to a distinctive legion of bookstores, laden with history and community lore.
Any bookstore tour of Chicago should begin in the South Side neighborhood where bookstores are a way of life: Hyde Park, home of the University of Chicago, easily accessible from downtown by public transit.
There, half-a-dozen bookshops are crowded into barely that many blocks. Most are open seven days a week, until 11 p.m.--a measure of their central place in the neighborhood's life.
Start at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, in the basement of the Chicago Theological Seminary. "CTS," as it's known to regulars, is a sprawling, friendly, ever-expanding underground warren where Nobel laureates rub shoulders with fresh-faced undergraduates over an immense stock of academic, historical and literary titles--more than 100,000 volumes.
(Shoppers can become part owners of the cooperative by purchasing a minimum of three shares for $10 each. As owners, they receive a 10% discount. At present, there are 27,000 customers holding shares.)
The shop has large foreign language sections and thousands of books from overseas publishers. This is no-frills, no-fluff bookselling with a vengeance; not a trendy diet book in sight. Though unaffiliated with the seminary upstairs, CTS is a bookshop of monastic intensity.
Two blocks away is 57th Street Books, also a part of the CTS cooperative, but markedly less severe. It's open, brightly lit and attuned to the casual browser, with an immense stock of magazines, fiction and children's books, and large sections on cinema and computers. The shop also features frequent readings by local and visiting writers.
Down 57th Street you find two outstanding used-book shops which have served Hyde Park for decades: O'Gara and Wilson Booksellers and Powell's.
Decades ago, the legendary Compass Players--university students including Mike Nichols whose pioneering comic efforts eventually spawned the famous Second City comedy troupe--rehearsed upstairs from O'Gara's, and their actual venue, the Compass Tavern, was on the land now occupied by Powell's.
In O'Gara's, the emphasis is on hardcovers. Although nearly every section is well-stocked, owner Joseph O'Gara takes special pride in his books on Chicago (including a rare original edition of Algren's prose-poem "Chicago: City on the Make") and on Ireland.
He's also a stickler for fair prices: It's not unusual to find a hard-bound novel by a shopper's favorite author for as little as $5. O'Gara has earned passionate loyalty from his patrons: In 1985, hundreds of Hyde Parkers petitioned to save the store from eviction.
Powell's is more haphazard, with a sea of used paperbacks perpetually flooding over the shelves. But this is the place to find that long-lost copy of a forgotten Edith Wharton novel, every Modern Library edition ever published or any one of hundreds of long-out-of-print poetry volumes.
If the hundreds of thousands of volumes in Hyde Park shops aren't enough for the book-loving visitor, there's always the University of Chicago's massive Joseph Regenstein Library, with its 1.5 million volumes.
With a driver's license or other identification, non-academic visitors can get a one-day pass (good until 1 a.m.), which lets them into the reading areas and the stacks. There are unusually comfortable reading areas, an extensive rare-books collection that's available to visitors and annual sales of the library's overstock.
Most Chicago visitors sooner or later find themselves in the Loop, with its museums and shops and hotels. Downtown Chicago has long had its share of bookstores but, unfortunately, in recent years, they've largely been of the chain variety.
Among the happy handful of exceptions is Bookseller's Row, near Orchestra Hall, where used hardcovers--many with mint-condition original dust jackets--fill two elegant stories.