Over the past 25 years, Chicago—like most American cities—has lost quite a few bookstores. First, independent booksellers like Kroch’s and Brentano’s, the Lincoln Avenue Powell’s, and the Prairie Avenue Bookshop. Then, Borders went out of business and Barnes & Noble downsized.
But a small independent bookstore in Lincoln Square, The Book Cellar, hasn’t just survived all that, it’s become a vital part of Chicago’s literary and cultural scene.
Why? A busy schedule of literary events (readings, signings, book clubs, etc.), and—as the name of the store implies—lots of wine and beer. In fact, Barnes & Noble seems to be taking a cue from The Book Cellar by applying for a wine and beer license in New York.
I recently spoke with the owner of The Book Cellar, Suzy Takacs, about running an independent bookstore in the age of Amazon.
Why has The Book Cellar survived when so many other bookstores have closed in the past 25 years?
I believe we’ve survived because we have so many reasons for people to come and shop. We have a wonderful, curated selection of books, gifts and cards, a cafe with light fare, cold drinks, coffee, wine, and beer. We offer events of all kinds for adults and children alike, and host over 10 different book groups at the store. The people who work here love to read and are excited to talk about books and share their opinions. We also enjoy working with schools to give students exposure to authors and new books.
How did you react when Borders went out of business?
I had mixed emotions when Borders closed. We did see a bump in business during that time, because people need a place to purchase books. But it wasn’t a completely joyous event for us. There are hundreds of thousands of books published each year, and there has to be a place for people to find them. We’re only one small space.
Is Amazon the enemy?
In my mind, Amazon is the enemy. In the past, many customers would be happy for us to place orders for books that we didn’t physically have in the store. Now, I’m beginning to get the feeling that if we don’t have the book, people are ordering from Amazon. Prime is a killer. And this doesn’t just apply to bookstores, but to all retail stores. If people don’t continue to shop in brick-and-mortar stores, we won’t be an option in the future. I think it’s a very serious problem.
What’s your favorite part of the store?
My favorite part of the store is the people. The people who shop here, the authors and representatives from publishers who have become my friends, and the terrific people that work with me and help me get everything done. I’ve watched neighborhood kids grow up here. I once helped a customer with her prenatal care when I was a nurse practitioner, and that baby was an intern at the store last summer.
What has the store taught you about Chicago’s literary community?
The Chicago literary community is vast and cohesive and supportive. There are over 60 literary readings every month. Authors are great friends to each other and supportive of each other and of bookstores and booksellers.
What’s your favorite memory of the store?
I have many memories that are near and dear to me, but one that comes to mind quickly is when Studs Terkel came for a reading.
What was the most difficult period in the store’s history?
When I first opened, everything was new. The ordering, human resources, events, inventory….all of it. I experienced a very steep learning curve. Also, the years 2008 and 2009 were tricky with the economy.
What would surprise people about running a bookstore?
One thing I didn’t realize is that it doesn’t go away or give me a break. I could keep working 24/7 and the work would still wouldn’t be complete. It’s not a nickel-and-dime business, it’s a nickel-and-penny business.
What do you see in The Book Cellar’s future?
I would love to see The Book Cellar continue to grow in book sales, continue to be an integral part of the Chicago community and the writing community, and continue to be able to host interesting author events.
Note for our Chicago readers: Next Thursday, February 11, The Book Cellar will host a reading with Sari Wilson, author of Girl Through Glass, and Maggie Kast, author of A Free, Unsullied Land.
Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.