Mission oriented bookstores in Chicago thrive while cookie cutter chains struggle to remain open

Customer browsing titles at the Women and Children’s bookstore in Andersonville

Customer browsing titles at the Women and Children’s bookstore in Andersonville

 
alt text By Tessine Murji, Reporter, The Real Chi
 
 

Chicago - While behemoth bookstore chains have been on the brink of bankruptcy, locally owned independent bookstores remain in business.

Borders shut down nationwide and Barnes and Noble was recently bought out by a hedge fund called Elliott Advisors. These one-time bookstore giants have acquiesced to Amazon, who successfully usurped 50 percent of the book market. Conversely, independent local bookstores are thriving and contributing to Chicago’s economy.

Front view of City Lit Books

Front view of City Lit Books

There are more than two dozen independent bookstores scattered around the city; none of which follow a cookie-cutter set up. Many offer literacy programs in their respective neighborhoods and provide services beyond just selling books.

City Lit Books, a Logan Square staple, doesn’t follow the corporate bookstore prototype. Founder Theresa Kirschbraun identified a need for a bookstore seven years ago in her community took action. 

“There was no competition, no other bookstore around. Not even within a couple of miles,” said Kirschbraun, a Logan Square resident of 25 years and former healthcare consulting professional. “There are lots of people who read here, but there was nothing to support that.”

Kirschbraun said what distinguishes City Lit Books from corporate chains is that they carefully curate their books and hold community-focused programs that attract regulars.

“We have a lot of things going on: author events, poetry readings, open mics,” listed Kirschbraun.

Tribune article highlighting Women and Children’s community contributions

Tribune article highlighting Women and Children’s community contributions

Kirschbraun said one of City Lit Books biggest soirees is called Story Time, an event where over 50 families huddle inside the petite bookstore while a musician reads from children’s books.

“We move bookcases and chairs. The kids are all here in this space spread out sitting on the floor. It’s pretty great,” said Kirschbraun.

Women and Children First in Andersonville is another independent bookstore active around the city. Co-owner Lynn Mooney said one of the reasons they’re still in business is because the store is mission-oriented. 

As one of ten feminist bookstores in the country, Women and Children First attract patrons who are excited about the curated titles the store has to offer. The owners make sure to choose books that highlight the multiple identities women, trans people and gender non-conforming individuals hold. The bookstore also regularly hosts events, showcasing notable figures like Gloria Steinam and Roxanne Gay.

Mooney, who is on the board of directors of the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce, noted the importance of supporting small businesses as a means of investing in Chicago’s local economy. Women and Children First is one of many small businesses in Andersonville who actively lobby to keep corporate entities from penetrating the neighborhood. According to Mooney, “the process of educating property owners has been an uphill battle” but that preserving the essence of Andersonville is far more important to residents than allowing corporations to plant chains.

Open Books, an independent bookstore with branches in Pilsen and the West Loop, is dedicated to providing robust literacy programming to Chicago’s youth. They work alongside the Chicago Public School system to provide reading and writing resources outside the classroom.

Curated books on display near the children’s books section

Curated books on display near the children’s books section

According to Cary Mele, program director at Open Books, the bookstore offers several workshops intended to not only sharpen participants’ reading and writing skills, but to foster an appreciation and love for books. For example, many of the programs end with participants leaving with a book from the store. Mele also said Open Books is expecting to expand its programming reach into neighborhoods like North Lawndale; hoping to host events and workshops outside the West Loop.

“I always emphasize that our product isn’t books, it’s experience.” said Kirschbraun. “People come here because they’re excited about books, and we’re excited about books. There’s no comparing between a chain bookstore and the kind of experience you get here.”