Chicago area’s independent bookstores see revival

Renting out a Lincoln Park brownstone for $200 may be considered unusual, but a 300-year-old vampire who wears three-piece suits and enjoys Taylor Swift music wouldn’t know any better. After all, he has also been imprisoned in a vampire dungeon in Naperville.

The fantastical scenario is the brainchild of Jenna Levine, who wrote the part-romance, part-paranormal novel set in Chicago while stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Levine watched “What We Do in the Shadows,” a documentary-style comedy series chronicling the lives of four vampires in Staten Island, and thought it could use a touch of romance.

Last year, just in time for Halloween, her debut novel, “My Roommate Is a Vampire,” was published, fulfilling a lifelong dream, she said.

Lots of things helped get the book into readers’ hands and land on the USA Today bestseller list, she said, from a fun cover design to viral videos across Instagram and TikTok. But she said it was “super supportive, super kind, super enthusiastic” independent bookstores across the country that helped push it over the edge.

“What (independent bookstores) do for authors, what they do for readers, what they do for the communities they’re in, I can’t say enough wonderful things about it,” Levine said.

There are dozens of independent bookstores across Chicagoland, each with distinct book recommendations and storefronts that owners say reflect the communities they’re in. Whether decade-old staples or new additions, specializing in mysteries and thrillers or romance, the stores often report similar challenges — tight profit margins, a fickle customer base and competition against Amazon and big-box stores’ low prices.

However, the industry as a whole, once viewed as on the verge of collapse, has largely bounced back since the COVID-19 pandemic, with hundreds of new members in the American Booksellers Association. This revival was on full display last Saturday when thousands of book lovers traveled across Chicago — in cars, buses and, in at least one case, a limousine — to shop on Independent Bookstore Day.

For Rebecca George, one of the organizers of the Chicagoland Bookstore Crawl and the co-owner of Volumes Bookcafe in Wicker Park, the best part of running a bookstore is connecting with neighbors — people she might never have met otherwise.

“We’ve seen people we know; they get married, they have kids, they experience loss, all those things become a part of your daily life and really kind of part of an extended family,” she said.

But the industry, she said, is a “constant gamble.” Sometimes lots of people buy a book — like “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us” by Hanif Abdurraqib, which George said sold about 200 copies in a year — but sometimes they don’t. Tastes can also change unexpectedly or based on news events — political books are sometimes in vogue, whereas currently, people tend to gravitate toward escapism in fantasy, she said.

George worries about sales dropping when a Barnes & Noble opens in the neighborhood later this year — meaning popular shopping days help them “bulk up before the summer.”

While Naperville hasn’t boasted any vampire dungeons (at least in recent history) it is home to a thriving independent bookstore — one whose owner said she wasn’t upset when the downtown Naperville Barnes & Noble closed earlier this year. Becky Anderson, the fifth-generation owner of Anderson’s Bookshop, said she’s already seen an uptick in sales.

When Anderson’s was founded in 1875, it was a combination of a pharmacy and bookshop — old ads called it a “druggist and bookseller,” she said. A lot has changed in nearly 150 years, Anderson said. The store has benefited from population growth in Naperville and the Chicago suburbs, but it has also had to contend with massive competition from stores like Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

Visiting a physical bookstore is generally the best way to get recommendations and attend literary events, Anderson said, but it also brings money into the local economy.

“We’re local, and when you benefit local, it makes all the difference in the world,” Anderson said. “If you put your money where your heart is, and that’s home, and that’s the independence in your communities.”

‘Bookstore desert’ on the South Side

Shopping at indie stores is a priority for Peggy Stenger, 67, of Printer’s Row, who joined the inaugural “bookstore bus extravaganza” on Saturday, hopping on a school bus to visit about 10 bookstores primarily on the South and Southwest sides of the city. Stenger and others carried passports to mark their visits. Visiting 10 bookstores earned participants a 10% discount for the year and a 15% discount with 15 stores.

Ever since she was a kid, Stenger has loved opening books and being transported into another world, she said, and she especially enjoyed browsing the selection at Da Book Joint, housed in the Boxville shipping-container marketplace in Washington Park. She bought so many books her husband had to meet her at the end of the route with a cart to carry her haul.

“I have always supported independent bookstores my entire life. No matter where we travel to in the world, we go to every single independent bookstore we can find in a city, and I buy something in every single bookstore,” she said. “We need independent bookstores that are going to stock a whole range of books.”

Another store Stenger went to was Bookie’s in the Beverly neighborhood. Owner Keith Lewis took over the shop in 2014 after stepping away from his job as an English teacher with Chicago Public Schools when his mother passed away. He opened a new, expanded storefront a few years later.

As an educator, he said he loves watching kids get excited about reading and matching customers with the “right book for them.” But, unlike on the North Side, Lewis said foot traffic and tourism aren’t very common, and the constant stress of keeping sales up wears on him. Da Book Joint has also struggled to survive in recent years.

“We’re really in a bookstore desert,” Lewis said. “There’s hardly anything on the South Side at all.”

Sales were down considerably at the beginning of the year, and Lewis worried that he wouldn’t be able to keep the doors open much longer. Some days, the store will be empty for hours, and it’s been over a year since he made a profit, he said. So he made a desperate plea to neighbors.

He posted a photo in March of how many books he needed to sell each month to break even — 2,485. In January and February he didn’t crack 2,000. He said he’s thankfully seen a substantial boost in sales since but is crossing his fingers it will hold up when his rent goes up later this summer.

“A bookstore is a hub for education, for literacy, for events,” Lewis said. “Having a bookstore in your neighborhood 100% makes your neighborhood better.”

Rise of romance and Booktok

While stores like Bookies have been around for more than three decades, others are just popping up. Amanda Anderson opened the Last Chapter Book Shop in Roscoe Village in September, after previously running an online-only store. The store’s shelves are filled with romance novels of all kinds — romantic comedies, sports romances, ones that have LGBTQ+ representation and many by independent authors, Anderson said.

While Anderson jokes that she was probably reading romance on the Wattpad website when she was much too young, the genre has made her “more in touch with who I am as a person.” The store, she said, is a “love note” to the romance community, something she holds on to when facing stigma for running a romance-only bookstore.

“I really wanted to create a physical safe space for people who are seasoned romance readers or people who want to dip their toes,” Anderson said.

There was a 52.4% increase in romance book sales in 2022, according to Publisher’s Weekly, along with a recent rise in romance-focused bookstores across the U.S. Some of the rise has been attributed to social media, namely TikTok and Instagram, including communities known as “BookTok” and “Bookstagram.” A few Chicago stores mentioned a spike in popularity of “romantasy” or books that combine fantasy and romance due partly to social media.

Indeed, literary fiction, magical realism and horror books usually take center stage on Hannah Gordon’s BookTok page. The 29-year-old West Town resident started her account, @hngisreading — which now has about 50,000 followers — during the COVID-19 pandemic when she had lots of free time.

A middle school teacher by day, Gordon films book reviews on the weekends. The video that first helped her account grow significantly was discussing her favorite books out of the 300 she read in one year. She focuses on promoting books and authors who she said aren’t getting the “love and attention” they deserve. She also made a video series highlighting indie bookstores in Chicago she visited during her spring break. Her go-to store is Open Books in Logan Square.

“People will say (BookTok) is ruining literature, but I see it as the opposite,” she said. “As a teacher, I see middle schoolers who don’t want to read, and they think reading is the most boring thing in the world. And it’s just because they haven’t found what they like yet.”

“I always tell them (my students) you don’t have to read the classics if you find them boring. You don’t have to read news articles if you find them boring, like you’re middle schoolers,” she added. “Read adventure novels, read graphic novels and manga. I just love that a really big focus on BookTok is like, hey, read what you love. If you find something you’re into, you’re going to read voraciously.”

One book club has certainly found that passion. About 15 women from Milwaukee and the Chicago suburbs drove across the city Saturday visiting 15 bookstores in a white stretch limo. It’s much easier than parking themselves, they reasoned.

By the end, Alyssa Burke, 32, of Skokie, said the books and merchandise they bought were basically overflowing out of the limo. Lot of bookstore owners wanted pictures, she said.

“We’re so lucky to live in a city with such a fabulous indie book scene,” Burke said.

Tribune reporter Kate Armanini contributed.