Chicago’s Independent Bookstores Making a Comeback

from The Chicago Grid

For 10 years, Teresa Kirschbraun kept her eyes peeled for a business opportunity promising enough to let her safely escape her hectic but lucrative career as a healthcare industry consultant. She found her opening in a surprising enterprise: bookselling.

Kirschbraun opened the doors to City Lit Books in Logan Square in August. Her 2,000-square-foot store is warm and inviting, with a working fireplace and a flurry of handwritten notes that recommend the staff’s favorite new novels, nonfiction and children’s books. On the store’s crimson awning, right next to the logo, small print proclaims “EST. 2012.”

Despite the pervasive image of independent bookstores as musty money pits, doomed to be crushed under the relentless wheels of, Kirschbraun believes she can make it. “A lot of people think it’s counterintuitive to open a bookstore today,” she says. “But as I looked at it, it made so much sense.”

She’s not the only one betting on books-and-mortar. While operating a bookstore remains fraught with peril, especially with the rising popularity of e-books, independent shops continue to crop up. And around the city savvy proprietors have managed to endure the efficiency onslaught from Amazon, and to outlast several national chains. In Lakeview and Andersonville, Oak Park and Naperville, local shops outlived Borders, which went out of business in 2011, and appear to be outdoing Barnes & Noble, which lost $117 million last year.


Two years ago, Unabridged Bookstore in Lakeview was doing battle with a Borders, a Barnes & Noble, and a Barbara’s Bookstore, all within a half-mile of its storefront on Broadway. Today the big boxes are all gone. Says Unabridged manager Stefan Moorehead: “We’re the last one standing.”

It’s not just a Chicago phenomenon. According to the American Booksellers Association, the industry’s trade organization, about 400 new independent bookstores have opened up shop across the country since 2009. The association reports sales at independents rose 8 percent last year — while Barnes & Nobles’ dropped 3 percent. “Contrary to the narrative about the state of indie bookstores, we’re actually hanging in there,” says Oren Teicher, CEO of the ABA.

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