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Know any good used bookstores in Chicago?
March 18, 2010

Dear Cecil:

I'm a huge used book store junkie. Partly because I'm a cheap bastard, but even more so because mainstream bookstores are all the same, and are annoyingly rooted in the present. Used bookstores are all unique, and are like hopping into a time machine and pressing "Quick Pick." My favorites so far are Bookleggers on Broadway and Bookworks on Clark, with an honorable mention to Armadillo's Pillow way up on Sheridan when I can get that far north. Have any nominations? I need to expand my repertoire.

— Tim R. Mortiss, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil replies:

Ah, Tim, you're such a naοf. In the age of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, we don't begin with a discussion of favorite used bookstores. First we need to explain the concept of books. Yes, I realize schools still hand out retrograde objects consisting of bits of processed wood on which toxic chemicals have been sprinkled. The kids regard these as instruments of pain. The notion that one might read one for amusement — you must be mad. Add to that the pending shift to electronic publishing, and you know full well our grandchildren will look at paper books as we look at vinyl records and vacuum tubes.

But you know what? Screw it. The backward technology to which you and I are accustomed will last our time, and we may as well make the most of it. Sure, when you walk into a used bookstore, you feel like you should start whittling around the cracker barrel and looking for a spittoon. That's part of the charm. So let me tell you about a used bookstore I like. Whether you'll like it I hesitate to say. Indeed, the sniffy sort, distracted by cheap flash, may say: my God, this place is a dump. Pay these folk no mind. I assure you on a basic level it works.   

The place I have in mind is Ravenswood Used Books, 4626 N. Lincoln, in the same building as the Davis Theater. It's run by Jim Mall — fittingly, a former antiques dealer. It's not fancy. In fact, I'm obliged to say it lacks virtually every accouterment of modern book retailing. Comfy chairs to facilitate book perusal? Nope. Coffee bar? Uh-uh. Trendy decor? Well, there's a toboggan suspended near the ceiling, which I thought might be some kind of design statement. However, when I pointed it out to Jim, he seemed taken aback to discover it was there. That's one of the benefits of owning a used bookstore, I guess. You find stuff that surprises even you.

Whatever its deficiencies, the shop does have books. Oh, yes. It has books out the wazoo. Jim doesn't know how many; he guesses maybe 20,000, crammed into the book cases lining the narrow aisles and stacked to the ceiling, redolent of that faintly musty book scent. If you have claustrophobia issues this is perhaps not your ideal environment. Jim has a general idea where everything is located, in the way that grocery clerks always seem to have mental map of where the molasses is. But there's no computerized or even paper catalog of the inventory, nor are the books alphabetized. Thematic groupings (art books, for example) are basic at best.

But be not deceived — this is no random jumble. There's a system here. The organizing principle is: books you ought to read. No Tom Clancy, no romance novels, just … well, "the classics" gives the wrong idea, and anyway isn't entirely accurate; Mall's got books of clip art in there. (Apparently there's demand for it among the artsy element.)

Let's just say the books suggest a discriminating taste. I was in the store last year with one of the little researchers, now 18. The kid unaccountably has a taste for Russian novels, so I figured I'd get her Solzhenitsyn's A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which would take less time than she'd needed to get though War and Peace. Mall thought he had a couple copies; in a minute or two he produced the Bantam paperback edition. I think I paid a buck. So: (a) he'd heard of the book, which isn't something you can count on these days; (b) he had the book; and (c) he could put his hands on the book notwithstanding the lack of bar codes and microchips. What more can you ask of a bookstore than that? 

Now, I don't mean to suggest that I, personally, am on intimate terms with Russian literature. You think I read War and Peace? That's the benefit of Ravenswood Books. Prowling about the stacks serves the useful purpose of calling one's attention to the gaps in one's literary education. I'm newly mindful, for example, that I need to read something by this Don DeLillo fellow. Will I? Who knows? But as long as I can get out to Lincoln Avenue once in a while, I can tell myself I could.

The other advantage of a good used bookstore is that you meet — eh, I won't say kindred souls; in my case that would be a frightening prospect. But interesting people. In the course of a couple hours holed up behind the cash register while Jim alternately attended customers and chatted with me, I engaged various parties in discussions of: (1) the Irish in America; (2) life in the mountain fastnesses of northern New Jersey, which I'm told are a sort of Yankee Ozarks; (3) alleged CIA complicity in U.S. cocaine importation; and (4) the future of the book business — this largely with Jim, naturally.

He was surprisingly sanguine about it, expressing irritation only with those professing certainty about what was to come — and by the time I departed his grumpy good cheer had rubbed off on me. Who knows by what miracles of quantum mechanics and telepathy coming generations will transmit their literary product? We may as well enjoy a good book's heft and crinkle while the opportunity presents itself. In that spirit I commend Jim's store to you, if only for a quick look. He's there from noon till 6, seven days a week.

 — Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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