Pilsen Community Books

I think the store opened in 2018. I recall walking by with a friend and making a mental note to come back. I got to know Aaron and Mary soon after. Made some art for them. Even filled in now and then when they needed a break.

A bookstore reflects the personality of its owner. If the owner is a corporation the store will be faceless. That was never a problem at PCB. Every inch reflected Aaron and Mary in one way or another. I was happy to be a small part of it.

Then they opened a second store downtown and I got involved there too. A whole wall full of Chicago writer portraits. More fill-in shifts. A couple book launches.

Then Aaron and Mary decided to get out of the bookstore business and move to michigan to have babies or live in the woods or something. We were never in each other’s lives on a personal level so I don’t know for sure.

They sold both stores and left town. Then the plague came.

The Pilsen store, now run by Katharine and Mandy, fought for life and persevered. Throughout the lockdown, though no one could go inside, it was a hive of activity. I picked up books whenever I could, hoping to do my small part to keep it afloat.

A couple years ago I did a Zoom launch for All Hack through PCB and they’ve always stocked my books. There are remnants of what Aaron and Mary created in the storefront on 18th Street but it’s now a very different store. Katharine and Mandy are fierce advocates of local community causes as well as larger political movements. Their business is a reflection of their beliefs. I’m happy to be friends with people who feel strongly and aren’t shy to say what they mean.

This Wednesday I’ll have a talk with local writer Annie Howard about my new book. I hope to see you there.

—Listen to my talk with Nancy Carey, then come back Wednesday for one with Westley Heine. Mallory and I talk about Bob Balaban’s Parents and there’s a whole article about our podcast/friendship.

—Made a new t-shirt design.

The Double

A show at the Rainbo is a special secret. One of those things you know about if you know the bartender or one of the people who will be on the little Polka combo stage behind the rows of Collins glasses.

Skyler says they’re playing at 7 or 8 so I get there at 5. There are two or three drinkers and Skyler who says he’s tired. It’s been a long week. He’s psyched for the show but wishes it would be happening already rather than hours away. The waiting in-between-time of music in bars always kills me too. The band never goes on when it says they will on the poster. And then, so often, you have to wait through two or three other bands before the one you want gets up there. Tonight it’s just the one so there’s that.

Emmett and Jim haul in their gear between 7 and 8. Soundcheck consists of switching on two amps, a couple strums over a fretboard, a few fills. Then they leave out to smoke.

The room fills up. A lot of familiar faces. Azita, Sam, Gillian, Janet, Alicia, Sally, Matt, Finn, Tim, Jenny, many other music and art types. Emmett comes over and says it feels like a hometown show and it does.

The Double plays more or less the same riff for almost an hour. But there’s overtones, undertones, and other phantom sounds all the way through. I wonder whether Emmett will get carpal tunnel or rotator cuff or tennis elbow alternating between those two notes. It’s mesmerizing. 

One of the best shows I’ve ever seen.

Variations on a Theme

I’m designing a t-shirt for a jazz club. Or trying to at least. It’s pretty open-ended. Not much guidance aside from the example of the shirt and logo they already have. I start with the obvious thing: drawings of musicians and dancers. But that doesn’t feel right for this place. Too anecdotal. It needs to be more univeral or maybe abstract. So I take the drawings apart.

A t-shirt is sort of like a billboard. It should be readable at a distance. I know I only have a maximum of four colors to work with so I have to make them count. I dump a bunch of drawings into Photoshop and start playing around.

I’m listening to Jeannie Berlin read Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge as I work. I try to imagine her spurned newlywed from The Heartbreak Kid but the weathered voice is basically Cyd Peach from Succession. I like audiobooks but find I retain almost nothing I’ve heard. I’m enjoying listening but after five hours (with about thirteen to go) I can’t tell you what this book is about. I wonder why that is. Not that my memory’s so great from reading but it feels qualitatively different. A completely other experience and activity. More passive maybe?

There’s almost nothing identifiable left of the source sketches in the designs I’m coming up with. Don’t know if that’s good or bad but each new one suggests the next. The possibilities expand. Kandinsky claimed he was painting music but I think he was deluding himself. No painter could do what music does no matter their self-confidence or talent. Visual art is a lesser, more limited form. Best to just accept that and work within the given constraints. Still I’d like this shirt to at least hint at what you might expect if you went to this club.

On a break I go to the museum and look at the new show of Bridget Riley drawings. She’s spent decades and decades measuring out shapes and arranging them mathematically to cause sometimes unsettling optical effects. There are handwritten notes on the margins of the bands of color and instances of mistakes or questions that undercut the cold perfection of her finished paintings. I never had much of a reaction to those. But these drawings are really engaging because they show the struggle to transcend into a heightened, clean realm, but not quite getting there. I like when you can still tell the things are made by hand. They’re uneven and imperfect in a human way.

Because I was given so little direction or guidance I just keep going. I change this or that setting in the program and each opens a trapdoor I fall through. I never learned to use Photoshop correctly so oftentimes each move I make involves two steps forward four back. But if I knew what I was doing this would be really boring. 

The club used to be a storefront theater. I saw a few plays there. It’s down the street from the latenight bar I worked at twenty years ago. Places like this, even in their new guises, echo memories decades back. This is what happens when you stay in a city long enough. Intersections and buildings trip associations every time you pass by. The area where this club sits is fraught with ghosts.

The owner saw my collages at the Rainbo and bought four. That’s what led to this job. It’s nice when things work that way. One thing leading to another. I’ve sent him about ten variations of the design so far and he hasn’t written back. Maybe none of what I’ve made is doing it for him. Who knows? So many unknown variables. I’ve spent days on this and have enjoyed it. I sort of don’t care even if no shirt is printed. 

I’m gonna keep going. There’s so much left of the Bleeding Edge for Jeannie to read before I’m through.

—I reviewed an art show, then another. Also a book of comics. I put up the trailers I made for my ill-fated second book here.

—Listen to my talk with James Jankowiak, then hear me read a chapter from DeLillo’s White Noise, then tune back in Wednesday for a new show with baker/teacher/ex-painter Nancy Carey.

—Listen to this great Meridian Brothers record.