Remember the death of the bookstore? All those shuttered Shops Around the Corner, driven out of business by Fox Books piazzas? That’s ancient history. Since 2009, independent bookstores in the United States have grown by more than 30%. And last year, book sales were up 10%.
For proof, look no further than Chicago’s West Side neighborhood, Wicker Park. Already home to two of the city’s most beloved bookstores, Myopic (used books) and Quimby’s (“zines, small press and other unusual publications”), last month it welcomed a third bookseller to the mix at 1474 N. Milwaukee Avenue: Volumes Bookcafe, a bright, spacious, modern combination of bookstore, café, and bar in the vein of Lincoln Square’s The Book Cellar that specializes in new releases in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and graphic novels from Big 5 and independent publishers alike.
In my opinion, mixed-use facilities like Volumes and The Book Cellar are the future of independent bookstores, because they act as a community gathering place for literary communities in addition to being a brick-and-mortar point of sale for new books, thereby combining several streams of revenue and bringing bookish types together. Barnes & Noble seems to agree.
I recently spoke with Rebecca George, who founded Volumes with her sister Kimberly, thanks to a successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. We spoke about why they opened a new bookstore in Chicago, what sets Volumes apart from the crowd, and their hopes for the future of the bookstore.
What inspired you to open a new independent bookstore in 2016? Is this a good time compared to 5 or 10 years ago?
I think it’s a great time compared to 5 or 10 years ago. There have been a lot of changes in the industry, so we’ve been able to more carefully plan how to combat that. After Borders went out of business and some indies faltered, people feared that would be the end of books. But that is far from the end of books. Hundreds of new shops have opened up in the last five years. Based on what I’ve seen at conferences as with Paz & Associates, there will be many more to come.
What sets Volumes apart from the other bookstores in the neighborhood and the city?
Well, as far as the neighborhood goes, we not only provide new books and indie bestsellers, we also have a rather robust children’s section. We want this to be a place families want to take their kids on the weekend or after school. We’ve already seen that come to life. We’re also a great place to get work done or study. That was also a goal. Pretty soon we’ll be filled with a robust calendar of events.
As far as being different, the cafe aspect that certainly creates a different vibe. This is a place you might want to hang out in for a while after you buy your book and coffee. Or perhaps you want a quiet place to color and drink wine. We’ve really created a space for people in the neighborhood that’s an alternative to bars or other coffee shops. I hate comparing us to the local bookstores, because we are just a different kind of animal for our residents.
Do you see yourselves as a community gathering place in addition to a traditional bookstore?
We are definitely a community gathering place. Suzy Takacs (owner of The Book Cellar) was a great mentor to me. She taught me a lot over the last two years since we’ve been pulling this all together. Many of the local bookstore owners and booksellers have been just simply amazing and supportive people. We’ve learned a lot about the Chicago book buying community.
We’ve already seen first dates. We’ve seen old friends gathering. On Saturday mornings we see families coming together in the children’s section and parents meeting new parents. There are two or three couples that have come in a few times to either complete a puzzle or color together quietly at a table. We’ve had kids constructing pillow forts in the kids nook. We’ve had people curl up with a book and stay all day (or all night for that matter). There are a few parents that have come in with their kids almost every day since we opened, and then they come back at night. I love that. I love that we’ve created a welcoming place for the neighborhood.
What makes Chicago a good city for the bookselling business?
Chicago has a huge number of diverse people with diverse interests and a city that loves storytelling. But that’s a tough question to answer. Why is any city a good city for bookselling? Shouldn’t every city be a good city for that? That’s the dream, I guess. There are always going to be book people in the world. In a big city you just have a higher concentration of them. And, hopefully, you can influence even more people to be book people.
Is Amazon the enemy?
Ha! Yes. Of course it is. For many reasons that have nothing to do with books. Amazon is not a bookstore. They’re an algorithm. I think if the public understood they can order any book they want from their local bookstore’s website, or just by calling in, they might change a few habits. Or, if they knew that by using Kobo instead of a Kindle app on their iPad, they could support a local, independent bookstore instead of Amazon.
I’m not out to fight with Amazon, nor do I think any bookseller is. I am, however, in the business of showing my neighborhood that there is an alternative down the street, where they can get a warm smile and a conversation about books that they won’t get online.
What do you see in the store’s future?
Goodness. I hope we can start building our events calendar out a bit more. We have so many ideas of what we want to bring to the space. Already we have a few authors coming in soon, as well as our first Open Mic nights is this week. Carly Cylinder, a super cool LA florist who wrote The Flower Chef, is coming in on the April 28th. She’s amazing. Independent Bookstore Day is coming up on April 30th. Book Expo of America and Book Con a few weeks after that, and we’ll be at Printer’s Row Fest this summer.
We intend on creating a few short summer programs for kids. And schools…we’re hoping to connect with schools so we can set up several dates for the fall with local authors. There are so many things. I get excited just thinking about them!
Short answer though, I see us creating a true community bookstore. We want that concept to extend beyond our doors as well. I love this city. I love my neighborhood. I intend on working hard to make Volumes a place that reflects that love.
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.