It’s a rainy Chicago Saturday in April, and the bookstore is full. A mother and a young child wait in line to check out a thick fantasy book, which the child is gripping tightly. “Some stores are chains, like McDonald’s. They’re in every city. But then think of a restaurant that’s only unique to one city, it’s special and only in that place,” the mother explains to the child.
The two are out shopping for the 4th Annual Independent Bookstore Day at Women & Children First in Andersonville. With its handwritten book suggestions taped to the shelves, locally-made posters hanging on the walls and colorful rugs and couches to sit and read, Women & Children First embodies aspects of a local, independent store.
At the same time the country saw its fourth Independent Bookstore Day, Chicago saw its first #MyChicagoBookstore Challenge. An initiative created by the Chicago Independent Bookstore Alliance, the challenge comes partly in response to Amazon’s new brick-and-mortar bookstore on Southport Avenue, according to Sarah Hollenbeck, co-owner of Women & Children First who helped in the creation of the challenge.
“It’s like a literary pub crawl, a way to see as many bookstores as possible,” Hollenbeck said.
24 independent bookstores in the Chicagoland area came together, challenging bookstore-lovers to visit 10 participating independent bookstores in one day. After spending $25 at the first bookstore and receiving luggage tags from each following store, they would receive a 10 percent discount for the rest of the year at all 24 participating independent bookstores.
“What we’re hoping to emphasize with the challenge is that if you went to visit 10 indie stories in one day, what you would take away from that is how different they are from each other,” said Nina Barrett, co-owner of Bookends & Beginnings in Evanston, who also helped create the challenge. “Each is so unique, it’s always a space that does not come out of some algorithm, or market research or mass marketing philosophy.”
While each independent bookstore has its own look and feel, every Barnes & Noble throughout the country looks relatively the same. Barrett acknowledges that corporate bookstores and online book sales are beloved for their cheap prices, but Barrett and others in Chicago’s indie bookstore community know they have something Amazon can’t take away from them – the experience of wandering through shelves upon shelves of books and making a day of it.
“The reason that you’re paying full price in an independent store is that the sales of the books have to support our entire business model,” said Barrett. “What you get for that is this wonderful space that you can come to in real life and really look around, sit for three hours [and] find something that might speak to your interests.”
Kelli Taylor, book club entrepreneur, found many books speaking to her interests on Saturday. She sat on the floor at Unabridged Bookstore in Lake View with six books, one of which she already had two copies of at home.
Taylor planned on completing the bookstore challenge that day, but by noon she had already been on the floor for about an hour, and she began to realize she’d have to pace herself. Taylor enjoys taking her time, talking with strangers and finding something new to read in the process, something with a tangible memory attached to it.
“I can remember where I got all my books,” Taylor said. “When I go to pick one up, not only is it nice that it’s something tangible [and] it’s not on my phone or my iPad, but I can remember what store I bought it at and the circumstances under which I bought it…and it does feel different.”
Taylor finds comfort in books, and comfort in the conversation and community that surrounds those books. Taylor started her book club, Rebelle, in January. After the election in November, she found herself turning to contemporary literature in order to better understand the world around her. Their goal is to pick books that somehow feel enlightening in what she describes as a time of political turmoil and unrest.
While literature acts as a form of community, it can also be a form of self-care. Taylor wants to discuss with others, first and foremost. However, she also wants to give herself the time to soak in the words alone.
“I’m a loner when I go into bookstores,” Taylor said. “I don’t wanna be looking to see if someone’s like ready to go, or if they wanna hang out longer and buy something if I don’t. I wanted it to just be a me day.”
In the independent bookstores of Chicago’s various neighborhoods, there is certainly a community focus as well as an individual focus. In the end, that’s why they created the challenge – a community of independent bookstores standing together in tough times, in one community of booklovers, who can still remain individuals with their own unique storefronts and reading materials.
“We’re lucky that a lot of new stores have opened in Chicago and our indie bookstore scene has really flourished,” Hollenbeck said. “It surprises people because they think print books are dying, and that’s just not the case from our experience.”