Since COVID-19 cases are on the rise and all of the previous fun activities require some form of socializing, reading is basically the only attainable hobby anymore. In addition to supporting our local libraries, independent bookstores remain the last true bastion against the e-commerce Cthulhu trying to destroy all small businesses within the country.
All of the independent bookstores in the city are worth a virtual or in-person masked visit, but we decided to compile a list of some of our favorites and the ways they are navigating book sales in a post-pandemic world. Visit online or in-person to pick up that copy of War and Peace you’re definitely going to read with all of this pandemic free time.
As always in the age of COVID, call ahead or check the stores’ websites to confirm their hours and shopping options.
Women & Children First
When you think about an independent bookstore in Chicago, Women & Children First is likely the first one to pop into your head. The shop is situated in the heart of Andersonville at 5233 N. Clark Street, surrounded by Swedish restaurants, candy stores, and coffee shops that mention things like “flavor profiles” and “pour over coffee.” Founded by Ann Christophersen and Linda Bubon in 1979, the book haven has moved locations over the years, and remains one of the largest feminist bookstores in the country, with a focus on children, women, and LGBTQIA+ literature. The store changed ownership in 2014, with the co-founders selling to two staffers, Lynn Mooney and Sarah Hollenbeck.
As of November 14, 2020, the store’s doors are closed for indoor browsing, and they’re offering curbside pickup only from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. They also ship anywhere in the U.S. The store is regularly hosting virtual book launches and discussions, so check their event calendar for details.
Semicolon Bookstore, located at 515 N. Halsted Street, has the distinction of being Chicago’s only Black woman-owned bookstore and gallery space. Writer, publisher, and owner Danielle Mullen named Semicolon after Project Semicolon, a nonprofit dedicated to advocating for mental health and anti-suicide initiatives. The store carries a book selection that spans hundreds of titles, and the entire store is covered floor-to-ceiling in work created by Chicago artists.
Mullen has also created a storefront that supports local initiatives and causes. With Paren(t)hesis, a literary-focused nonprofit by Semicolon, the store has given over $175,000 in books and direct donations to Chicago Public School students in its first year of existence.
As of this writing, the physical store is open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from Noon to 6 p.m. For those not able to visit the actual shopfront, Semicolon has a series of titles for sale at Semicolonchi.com. Patrons, fans, and book lovers of all kinds can also follow the store on Instagram @SemiColonChi.
The independent bookstore café in Wicker Park was founded by two Chicago-area sisters, Rebecca and Kimberly George. Volumes has a handpicked inventory of literature, and it sells gifts, locally made artwork, while the café offers a selection of craft coffee, tea, wine, and beer, as well as Dollop pastries.
The Book Cellar
The Book Cellar has traditionally combined the pleasure of wine with the joy of reading, which is essentially two-thirds of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Owner Suzy Takacs created a bookstore/restaurant that serves coffee, tea, and wine by the glass with a pastry and café area for those who like to feel well-fed while they hunt for books.
The independent bookstore focuses on local, small-press, and first-time authors, and regularly hosts events such as spelling bees, book club meetings, author book signings, Harry Potter parties, and more. During the spooky season, The Book Cellar has also participated in Halloween Happenings. Virtual readings and events are still happening, and check the store’s event calendar for details.
The storefront, located at 4736 N. Lincoln Avenue in Lincoln Square, is open for curbside pickup only. While the food services have been suspended, The Book Cellar still provides beverages to go, and it offers contact-free book orders for those who want books shipped to their homes.
The Underground Bookstore
Underground Bookstore is a Black-owned business focused on literature that details Black heritage and history, with a range of African and Disaspora authors. In addition to the reading catalogue, the store offers a stock of incense, Egyptian Ankhs, Eyes of Horus, and other cultural items. The South Side shopfront has been a staple at 1727 E. 87th Street for over 20 years, and the store regularly hosts authors and speakers such as New York Times best-selling novelist Omar Tyree.
“If you had asked Erika a few years ago what her Dream Career might be, owning a store would have been at the top of her list…” So reads the origin story for this Roscoe Village shop owned by Erika VanDam. RoscoeBooks, located at 2142 W. Roscoe, opened in 2014 and offers a full range of local and national authors, and a robust list of recommendations from Erika and her staff.
The shop is open at limited capacity in person, and its popular book club has moved to Zoom.
The Dial Bookshop
The Dial Bookshop owners Heidi Zhang and Peter Hopkins took over the shop just as COVID-19 took hold in the spring, but that hasn’t stopped them from offering a well-stocked indie refuge on Michigan Avenue ever since. Located on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building at 410 S. Michigan Avenue, the shop is named for a literary magazine that operated out of the building in 1880.
The store is open for in-person shopping and offers gift cards, a book-of-the-month subscription (with an optional Zoom book club), tote bags and apparel on its website.
Bookends & Beginnings
Nina Barrett isn’t just the owner of Evanston-based Bookends & Beginnings, located at 1712 Sherman Ave, Alley #1, she’s an author, essayist, and freelance writer. The store opened in June 2014 with the help of Barrett’s husband, who, among other things, is an expert on global children’s literature. His expertise is the reason the shop has such an expansive collection of children’s books in 48 languages. They also carry books on the grade-specific reading lists for Evanston School District 65.
Check the store’s website for online ordering and in-person shopping hours.