Chicago has lost dozens of bookstores over the years. In 1912, the Fine Arts Building demolished the only bookstore ever designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1927, legendary Chicago Tribune columnist Fanny Butcher sold her bookshop at Michigan and Adams. In the past decade alone, we’ve lost the Prairie Avenue Bookshop, Printers Row Fine & Rare Books, and Bookworks.
In the next few weeks, Chicago could lose another bookstore — Volumes Bookcafe in Wicker Park — whose impact on the city’s literary scene is arguably greater than all of the aforementioned bookshops combined.
After realizing the store wouldn’t survive its third year without financial support, owners Kimberly and Rebecca George launched an Indiegogo campaign on February 7, filled with rewards from poets, writers, agents, and book publishers. So far, they’ve raised 34% of their $60,000 goal with five weeks remaining.
It is absolutely critical to Chicago arts and culture that we keep Volumes open, and when I say we, I don’t just mean individual book-lovers. I mean business, community, and civic leaders, too.
Dating back to the 1893 world’s fair, Chicago’s cultural vibrance has always depended on public support. Harriet Monroe could not have founded Poetry magazine in 1912 without asking 100 local businessmen and women to donate $50 each. “A sense of noblesse oblige underwrote the financial backing of many of Chicago’s powerful cultural institutions,” writes Liesl Olsen in Chicago Renaissance, “the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Field Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Newberry Library, the John Clarer Library and the University of Chicago — which were collectively understood as a necessary antidote to the industrial utilitarianism that dominated the city’s growth and identity.”
You might ask why a bookstore belongs in the same conversation as museums and libraries. As Robert Martin pointed out last week, a bookstore is so much more than a retail outlet — it’s a vital part of the cultural infrastructure that allows a city’s literary scene to thrive. Just as early Chicagoans needed the Illinois and Michigan Canal to ferry goods between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi, Chicago’s present-day poets, writers, editors, and publishers need bookstores to connect them with local readers … and each other.
“Half the good things that have happened in my career have happened because I’ve been able to meet readers and booksellers in person,” says Rebecca Makkai, the local author of The Great Believers, a forthcoming novel about Chicago during the 1980s AIDS crisis. “Writing is about sitting at your desk all day, but being an author is about getting out in the world and engaging with it and standing behind your work.”
While Chicago is home to nearly two dozen independent bookstores, only a few have the real estate to host large crowds. On the West Side, Volumes has the most flexible square footage, and has hosted more than 600 free events since opening its doors in March 2016. Just a few days ago, more than 85 people crammed between the shelves for a poetry reading with Eve Ewing, Hanif Abdurraqib, Tara Betts, and José Olivarez, and I’ve attended other events where the staff had to turn visitors away to avoid fire code violations.
I honestly believe Chicago is on the cusp of its third literary renaissance. Thousands of young poets are just now coming of age, drawn to the West Side by Young Chicago Authors and its youth poetry festival, the largest in the world. Books about Chicago are making waves during awards season, like Erika L. Sanchez’s young adult debut, a finalist for last year’s National Book Award.
Losing Volumes would be a tragic blow to that cultural momentum. If Chicago’s civic, community, and business leaders pride themselves on living in a cultural capital, they should join the city’s readers to save it.