Walking down 18th Street one night a few years ago with a friend, I happened upon a new bookstore. The window display of Pilsen Community Books had a children’s book my companion recognized. We promised to check this place out sometime and walked on.
Opening a bookstore these days is sort of a perverse proposition. Few people read books, yet more are printed than ever. Online retailers practically throw them in like packing peanuts with higher ticket item. The U.S, Postal Service is often used to mule these pouches and boxes from giant warehouses in undisclosed locations directly to our doorsteps. Who needs to use one’s own legs to walk out into meatspace when everything one can fathom will be plopped on your lap for a price, often within hours?
I went back to Pilsen Community a few weeks. Aaron and Mary, who run it, used to work at Open Books—a place I’ve done work with. Open Books is part of a non-profit dedicated to literacy and this store continues that mission with free book programs for schools. But the look and feel of the store is different. Where Open Books often feels like a warehouse, Pilsen Community is a carefully considered and organized place. In addition to new and used books, they sell beautiful stationary and pencils. The place was put together by people with an eye.
I got to know Mary and Aaron after a few more visits. They started carrying my books, then asked for some artwork to hang in the store. Now there’s a rotating selection of my Pilsen drawings above the register.
Not content with one store, they recently opened a second. The Dial Bookshop is on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building, accessible exclusively by human-operated elevator. It is a lot like Pilsen Community, but with views of Grant Park and the patter of little ballerinas’ feet added. The Fine Arts Building is a strange relic of a time when artists, musicians, and booksellers were actually important to our society. The Dial Bookshop is named after the magazine of that name started by Margaret Anderson and based in the building. Anderson would move to Paris and took the magazine with her. Today it’s probably best known for serializing James Joyce’s Ulysses and being prosecuted for obscenity by the US government. That’s Anderson and her partner, Jane Heap, in the illustration above.
I paint a portrait of a Chicago writer each month for the Dial. They are turned into postcards with a quote from the subject on the back. The originals are hung in the store. Visiting one time, the door was locked, a sign saying they’d just stepped out for coffee. I sat down and waited in the hall. A picture window opened onto shelves of neatly displayed books. Past them, the light streamed in from the park on Michigan Avenue. I told myself to come back and try painting what I’d seen.
Aaron, Mary, and I talk a lot about the book business. It’s in complete disarray. Some parts function as if the internet never existed, while others are as fly-by-night as three-card-monte hucksters. The bookstores these two have opened are a possible way forward. You need to offer people something attractive and unique enough to inspire them to unglue their asses from the couch. This isn’t easy when you can buy anything you want with a flick of your index finger but I think and hope they’ll succeed. Not just because I work with them but also because I like visiting the stores they’ve created.
When a bunch of little girls in tutus from ballet class down the hall flutter into the Dial to look at books, I’m almost hopeful.
—I wrote a feature article about photojournalist Nancy Abrams’ memoir and photos of West Virginia and a piece about the Ivan Albright show at the Art Institute and a short review of mentalist Mark Toland’s act.
—I answered some art questions for Voyage Chicago.