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Reading Chicago: A Sunday Afternoon in Andersonville’s Bookstores

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A new city and a new job mean that I have had a lot of difficulty reading lately. And did I mention that I managed to find a workplace, in the US, where English is the second language? I think assimilation means that my brain has too much to do.

For a while, I was able to hang out on one of Chicago’s extensive lake front beaches and read, but now it is getting too chilly to do that. But I’ve found that Sunday afternoons in my favorite haunts, bookstores and libraries, along with a beer a little pub food is a good way to ready myself for another week.

I don’t buy books much, so I have decided to pay for my afternoon’s entertainment by sharing what I would buy and would read in a perfect world.

My question is this: What makes a great bookstore?


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Andersonville

Andersonville is a kind of hipster neighborhood in North Chicago. It was originally settled by immigrants from Sweden, and later it became a lesbian enclave…the female counterpoint to Chicago’s “Boystown” to the south. According to my in-depth research conducted on Wikipedia, Andersonville isn’t as lesbian as it used to be because of rising rent prices, but honestly, when you walk around, you will get the impression that if there are fewer lesbians, they have been replaced by gay men.

If you are hanging out with people who you would rather not take to a bookstore, there are some pretty interesting shops around, including Strange Cargo, which is an old-fashioned t-shirt shop like I remember from the late 70’s and early 80’s, where you can spend a good while picking out your special combination of t-shirt and heat transfer decal. The smell of the transfer machine took me to my early adolescence. There are also a couple of, believe it or not, “artisan malls” on Clark Street that sell a variety of locally made good. So there is plenty to keep nonreaders occupied until it’s time to head to one of the local restaurants or pubs.


A little bonus found on Foster….

When I come to Andersonville, I go directly west on Foster to Clark Street. When I arrive at the intersection of Foster and Clark, I have a choice: I can turn left and head to “Uncharted”, or I can turn right at head to “Women and Children First.”

What to do?

Uncharted

It may sound cliched and kitschy, but it’s a lot of fun, I promise: Uncharted’s theme is sailing and navigation. Not specifically with regard to the merchandise…the them has more to do with the decor, which features vintage nautical relics. The effect is completed by the squeaky wooden floors, which definitely give you the impression that you are on a sailing ship. Although secret doors and passageways aren’t something that one would reasonably equate with ships (maybe a treasure island), Uncharted does have a secret door that leads to its rare book room. If you feel the need to do anything secret or weird…or dishonest…don’t do it in the back of this store because you might suddenly find a clerk standing in front of you. Consider yourselves warned.

Uncharted’s collection is quirky and eclectic, but to their credit, the books are well organized and easy to browse. I’m not sure how much planning or artistry goes into the collection…or if the staff are simply stocking what they know sells, but as a browse the shelves, especially the fiction, I find myself wondering about the stories behind the books I see on the shelves as much as the books themselves. Of course, in some cases, I think books may have been on literature course reading lists once too often. But there are many other instances that make me smile, or wonder about the person who collected the titles, especially when I see a run of an author’s complete, or nearly complete works.

What Not to Miss in Uncharted

In late 2020, the Rare Books room is still closed. If you can get in there…and that includes literally finding it…do.

I like the Fiction section in Uncharted because of the stories it tells. I see soooo many old favorites that I want to read again, or many things that I thought I wanted to read.

The humor section is good along with the entertainment section, but my favorite section in Uncharted is the graphic literature. They just jam the manga, and “graphic novels” and books about both together into a pretty wonderful and amazing mix. I almost went back to buy a multi volume “girl” manga that I haven’t seen too often in English. I know about them from living in Japan, but not so much here…and while this one was in English, it was published back to front (so you hold the binding on the right), which apparently publishers do to show that it’s authentically inauthentic because a real purist would just learn to read Japanese (hahahaha I write with tongue firmly in cheek because Japanese is a very hard language to learn to read).

The thing that I like the most about Uncharted is that the vibe is very low key. I can find Andersonville off-putting because I don’t feel like I’m cool enough to hang out there, but while in Uncharted, I feel that they truly are welcoming of all people…the hip, the cool, and authentically boring, like yours truly. No one seems to care as long as you are there for the books.

Oh, and every time I’ve been there, it’s been reasonably quiet. Because real book lovers shut their mouths and read with their eyes. Just saying.

 

Highlights of the Browse in Uncharted


My favorite Michener.

Did these books all come from one person? And if they did, why these particular titles? Seems like there’s a theme here.


This made me smile because my mom had a bunch of these fancy “classic” books. I don’t think she ever read any of them, but I read some of them. This title cracked me up in particular because it’s not what I would call a “classic” at all.

Women and Children First

When I first moved to Chicago, I stayed in an Air BnB on Foster, right around the corner from this shop, and I spotted it my very first night. You can’t miss the purple awning, and this shop is pretty famous.

The name of the shop is exactly what the shop is: a bookstore devoted to books about women with a very nice children’s book section with an emphasis on diversity right in the middle.

Sounds awesome right?

I actually have had quite a hard time with this shop. I think today’s visit was my third, and the first couple of times, I kind mostly kind of hated it. I felt that the whole shop was just trying too hard, and that it wasn’t about real readers at all.

First of all, the last time I was there, on a Friday afternoon, the staff were conducting very loud conversations that were supposed to make one think, I think, that these people are so super cool. But you know, if you are loud in a bookstore that tells me right away that you aren’t a reader so just stop. Stop.

And on top of that, there was some dad with his kid very loudly trying to interest her in a book about having two dads, or families that are different, or something. I mean please. Even in the sticks that isn’t big news anymore.

The most enjoyable thing about the whole situation is that the little girl would have none of it. I hope dad enjoyed the $15 picture book that he bought for himself. Ack.

Today’s visit was much better though. They seem to have gotten some better staff (out with the college kids and in with the middle aged women…now that’s diversity) who actually thanked me for being the one person with the common courtesy to let departing customers OUT of the store before pushing in.

When I’ve been there before the staff have been kind of rude…they are manning the door because of COVID, which is fine, but no reason to be ugly about it. I mean, most book shoppers don’t need books. Come on.

And maybe it’s because it’s later in the fall and the new books are out…late summer in book land is like late summer used to be on TV…all reruns. Certainly the books I’ve seen in there before seemed tired to me…I’d read so many of them and even featured many on The Lois Level. But today there was a lot of fresh material.

And, on top of that, the kids that got my attention today was looking for Little House in the Big Woods. You all know how I feel about that. And what did the mom do? QUIETLY helped her find it…and left the kids alone to browse the book herself.

What Not to Miss in Women and Children First

Totally give the long, overblown description cards a miss…but be sure to hit the Women’s Studies section, and most especially the Current Events section. The Current Events section covers a wide range of topics, not just female oriented ones. I like the essay section too. The Graphic Literature has a lot of female oriented titles that don’t get the shelf space in regular bookstores.

To be honest, when you hit them on a good day…and when the idiot staff isn’t working…there are great reads hidden all over the store that aren’t going to pop up on Amazon.

Women and Children First sells new books with a very particular point of view, and pairing that with Uncharted, which you feel is curated by the customers, makes for a great afternoon outing.

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