Bookseller Ed Devereux’s Novel Idea
By Tony Peregrin in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 4, 2010 5:20PM
Maybe it’s the little yellow note cards affixed to shelves touting staff favorites, or the jaw-dropping selection of high-quality (and cheap!) remainders, or their collection of relevant LGBT literature—we’re not entirely sure how they did it, but incredibly this week, Unabridged Bookstore is celebrating 30 years in business, in the same location. We pause to let that sink in—especially considering this independent bookstore is thriving in an age when the Kindle and other e-readers are becoming de rigueur, and as the mega-chain book stores shutter high profile locations such as the flagship Borders on Michigan Avenue, which is expected to close next year.
Unabridged Bookstore was launched in 1980 at its current location on Broadway by Mike Liska, Tom Norton, and Ed Devereux—who is the current owner. As unusual as it might sound today, in the ‘80’s, selling general titles along with gay and lesbian books under the same roof was viewed as somewhat of a radical business plan.
“I wanted to sell all kinds of books, and to have the bookstore reflect the neighborhood,” explains Devereux. “So, I decided to start a general bookstore with a large gay section that would almost be like a store-within-a-store. The store would be a go-to place for everyone in the neighborhood, both gay and straight.”
Determined to uncover the secret behind Unabridged Bookstore’s unparalleled shelf life, Chicagoist caught up with Devereux at his Lakeview shop.
Chicagoist: Ed, you have has said that Unabridged Bookstore’s success is due to three words: Location, location, location. This is certainly true, as the bookstore has been in the same spot for 30 years. But back in 1980, the gay neighborhood was actually at Clark and Diversey, which is south of your current location, right?
Ed Devereux: You’re right, the gay epicenter was a little farther south, but He Who Eats Mud had recently opened north of Belmont, and I lived around the corner. This location had [previously] been a beauty parlor, but the rent was right, so this became our location. Location is certainly a prerequisite for success, essential but not sufficient in itself. Lots of other small gay businesses and bars on Halsted eventually opened in the neighborhood, which certainly helped our store.
C: Many iconic gay bookstores have shuttered their doors recently—Lambda Rising in Washington D.C., A Different Light in Los Angeles, Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia, and the Oscar Wilde Book Shop in New York City, the nation’s oldest gay bookstore, to name a few—and yet Unabridged Bookstore continues to thrive.
ED: A reality today in bookselling is that “specialty” bookstores have an especially tough time. Chicago used to have a mystery bookstore, a cookbook store, a science fiction bookstore, etc., but these have all closed. In many ways, it was fortuitous that Unabridged opened as a general bookstore with a really large gay section, and not just as a gay-specific store, especially with the advent of online bookselling, gay bookstores, along with any kind of specialty-only bookstores, have taken a big hit. By opening in 1980 as a general bookstore, we have had a long time to grow and establish the store and be relevant to a very wide population.
C: A PTA group from the school across the street actually paid the bookstore a visit when you first opened. Compare that with the relationship you have with the school today.
ED: Yes, a group from the school across the street did talk to us. To them, selling “gay” books meant selling pornographic books—they were afraid we were going to be an adult bookstore. We allayed their fears, and that was that. Interestingly enough, when we first opened, we did not carry any gay erotic magazines—just to make it clear that we were legitimate—but you could buy those magazines down the street at Waldenbooks! Today, we are an integral part of the neighborhood, and have worked with Nettelhorst School in providing readings to pre-schoolers every Tuesday, and the school has let us use their auditorium for book signings. (We hosted Michael Moore there, for example).
C: Talk a little about your highly revered Children’s book section and the challenges involved in being a children’s bookstore and a GLBT bookstore.
ED: The neighborhood is a great one for bookselling—it is densely populated with educated, fairly affluent residents, young and old, gay and straight. I suppose the neighborhood itself has gotten a little less gay as gay people have spread out and moved throughout the city, but we still have a very strong gay section and a very strong children’s section. Each section takes up about the same square footage in our store, but we do happen to sell a lot more children’s books than gay books these days. On our staff, Shane and Ianni do an amazing job of buying the children’s books, and managing the section. Certainly, the kids section and the gay section do not conflict with one another, but rather, complement each other in serving our diverse neighborhood.
C: One of the best kept secrets in Lakeview is Unabridged Bookstore’s high-quality remainder section. Can you walk the reader through the process of how these books are selected and why they are priced so inexpensively?
ED: Remainders, or sale books, are an essential part of our store. It’s actually a win-win-win for everyone involved—publishers get to sell off their unsold inventory, our customers get to buy books at amazing discounts (right now we have a huge $4.98 paperback sale going on!), and we actually make a bigger margin on sale books than regular books. We spend a lot of time pouring over sale book lists online to get exactly what our customers want, and our entire staff is very enthusiastic about the great remainders we sell.
C: Ed, pick one GLBT novel that you consider required reading for gays, and one for hetero readers.
ED: Of course it would be hard to choose one, but maybe, the same one for everyone—James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. It’s a classic.
Unabridged Bookstore, 3251 N. Broadway, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday or go to unabridgedbookstore.com