17 Of The Best Independent Bookstores In Chicago
By Emma G. Gallegos in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 21, 2016 8:38PM
Independent bookstores have taken a beating since the arrival of big box chains, the internet and e-readers. But some book stores are not only surviving, but thriving. Some of the stores fill a niche, like stocking the weirdest sci-fi or zines. Others create a community with their events calendar. All of them have a thoughtful selection of books that are more fun to browse IRL and staff on hand who can make recommendations an algorithm could never dream of. These are the favorites of the Chicagoist staff—add your own favorite booksellers in the comments.
Quimby's is the perfect place to find, say, a witch calendar (Quimby's/Instagram)
Quimby's is a champion of the eclectic, independent, countercultural, punk, weird and obscure. Just wandering through here to see what's available is an education. You can find what you need to make your way through critical theory or your first time dropping acid or casting a Satanic spell. Quimby's is especially noteworthy for being a major center of zine culture in Chicago. You can find quite an array of independently-produced zines, comics, graphic novels, novels and anything that blurs those lines. Bring your friends and dates along to browse and commemorate the occasion in their photobooth. This year the shop celebrated 25 years in business.
Quimby's Bookstore is located at 1854 W. North Ave., in Wicker Park (773) 342-0910
The first thing you notice strolling into Unabridged Bookstore are the lemon-yellow, laminated cards lining the tidy shelves revealing personal, handwritten recommendations that guide you to books you didn't realize you wanted to read. For more than 35 years, Unabridged Bookstore has been Chicago's leading source for LGBT literature, but the Lakeview bookseller also boasts an impressive children’s section, a vast “travel room” in the basement, and a carefully curated sale book section with current and below-the-radar hardcopy tomes (remember those?) appealing to both bibliophiles and casual readers. —Tony Peregrin
Unabridged Bookstore is located at 3251 N. Broadway in Lakeview, (773) 883-9119
Women And Children First, on display (Photo by NYRB Classics via the Creative Commons on Flickr)
WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST
Women and Children First is a feminist bookstore devoted to everything that can't be added to a virtual shopping cart—from support groups to TEDx Talks to author readings from both established and novice writers. Oh, and there's books too—the Andersonville bookseller stocks a robust collection of more than 30,000 titles by and about women, children's books for all ages, and LGBTQ fiction and non-fiction. With a staff that features writers, political activists, and mothers, Women and Children First has amassed legions of devoted fans drawn to the bookseller's unassuming and inclusive charm. —Tony Peregrin
Women and Children First is located at 5233 N. Clark St. in Andersonville, (773) 769-9299
Lots of book clubs and coffee here at Book Cellar (Book Cellar/Instagram)
THE BOOK CELLAR
Book Cellar has everything an independent store should: a well-curated selection of books and a well-versed staff. What makes Book Cellar stand out is its role in the local lit community. There's always something going on, whether a book club, a signing, a reading (once it was Studs Terkel!), a comedy show or a reading party when a long-anticipated book comes out. There is coffee, wine and light snacks to give you sustenance should you want to hang out here and chat. This is a book store for the extroverted reader.
The Book Cellar is located at 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. in Lincoln Square, (773) 293-2665
An ideal reading couch at Myopic (Photo by rebecca anne via the Creative Commons on Flickr)
Myopic has three floors of lovingly chosen used books right in the heart of Wicker Park, and it's the unanimous favorite of the Chicagoist staff. Its labyrinthine stacks are a great place to spend an afternoon. If you need help finding your way around the place or need a recommendation, the staff on hand is immensely helpful. Standouts include its excellent fiction section, the basement collection of sci-fi books and a great Chicago history section. Monday nights they have free live music that tends toward the more experimental side and regular poetry readings, too. Be warned: they've got a no cell phone policy and they don't have a restroom.
Myopic Books is located at 1564 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Wicker Park, (773) 862-4882
The Seminary's new space (Photo by Connie Ma via the Creative Commons on Flickr)
THE SEMINARY CO-OP/57TH STREET BOOKS
What the South Side lacks in quantity of independent book stores, it makes up with two stores, just a block apart, run by the Seminary Co-Op. One of them, the Seminary Co-Op, houses one of the largest collections of academic books in the world. It focuses on the social sciences and humanities, which helps to serve the community at the University of Chicago. But it's a great resource for anyone interested in diving deep on any particular subject or a particular language, whether in or out of school. If you're looking for a less scholarly, more typical general interest book store, head over to 57th Street Books. The spread here is pretty huge, but it has that indie bookstore touch I love so much: notes from staff with recommendations you otherwise might not have considered. It's easy to join the co-op, and in doing so you will join the ranks of luminaries such as Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, Barack and Michelle Obama, Friedrich Hayek and Harold Washington.
This is the best way to enjoy a book—or a bookstore (Photo by Read It & Eat/Instagram)
READ IT & EAT
Two great things in the world are reading and eating, and this store combines them beautifully. There's an emphasis on cookbooks, but there are all sorts of books about food. Travelogues, memoirs, history, everything! Authors, whether chefs, writers or other food celebs, come by to sign their books. Even better: there is actually food for you to taste from their test kitchens. They often test the stuff straight out of cookbooks. Best of all: you can take classes here and learn to cook for yourself.
Read It & Eat is located at 2142 N. Halsted St. in Lincoln Park, (773) 661-6158
Bucket o'Blood's offerings (Photo by Julianne via the Creative Commons on Flickr)
BUCKET O'BLOOD BOOKS AND RECORDS
This bookstore carves out a niche for itself and owns it when it comes to science fiction, fantasy and horror books. They've got a great selection of horror and B-movies to accompany this selection. While most of what they have on hand is genre fiction, they've also got a nice selection of literary fiction and nonfiction. The store's name might evoke a place with a basement rec-room aesthetic, but this space is airy and organized with a few retro movie posters and tasteful skulls thrown in the mix.
Bucket o'Blood is located at 3182 N Elston Ave. in Avondale, (312) 890-3860
Volumes Bookcafe's Harry Potter release party (Volumes Bookcafe/Facebook)
This is the newest entry on the list, and it feels very new. Dim bookstores with narrow, winding aisles have their own romance, but Volumes feels cheery, open and welcoming. The ceilings are high, there's a lot of light and everything is beautifully organized. Volumes opened this year in Wicker Park, a neighborhood not hurting for booksellers, yet it has found its niche. Volumes looks like a cafe in the front, where it serves wine, cider and local craft beer in addition to Metropolis coffee, as well as Dollop Pastries. The store goes deep and has a selection of mostly new offerings, including a healthy section for kids. Volumes hosts a lot of events: book clubs, open mics, comedy nights, weekly trivia, Scrabble league and StoryTime for the kids twice a week.
Volumes Bookcafe is located at 1474 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Wicker Park, (773) 697-8066
It's an inviting space (Open Books/Yelp)
Open Books isn't your average used bookstore. It has a selection of 50,000 books—10,000 of those dedicated to children and teens. Its location in the West Loop is clean, well-organized but also sprawling. It's a great place to pick up a book without spending a whole lot. (Look for their periodic sales to save more.) But what sets it apart is its educational outreach efforts. The nonprofit grants books to kids (and adults!), and it coordinates volunteers to work at schools throughout the city. Volunteers get set up with kids who need reading buddies—that is adults who can help them learn to read and learn to love reading. There are programs to help with creative writing skills, as well. So if you're looking for a book, and maybe also a chance to volunteer and share your love of the written word, Open Books is the place.
Open Books is located at 651 W. Lake St. in the West Loop
Underground Bookstore is a rarity in that it is one of the few black-owned bookstores dedicated to Afrocentric thought in Chicago. This South Side bookstore has been in business 24 years and its main focus is books dedicated to a wide range of black political thought and spirituality, including metaphysics. Here you can find books or recordings of leaders like Malcolm X or an exhaustive account of America's prison industrial complex. They're also known for having a particularly well-stocked Afrocentric children's section, a critical resource given how important it is to children's self-esteem to see people with their skin color represented—a fact white children can take for granted. The bookstore occasionally hosts speakers and writers, like New York Times best-selling novelists Omar Tyree (famous for the Flyy Girl trilogy) and Carl Weber, who also runs the publishing house Urban Books.
Underground Bookstore is located at 1727 East 87th St., (773) 768-8869
Sandmeyer's is in a lovely old building (Sandmeyer's/Facebook)
A true mom-and-pop in a beautiful historical building in the South Loop on Printer's Row. This is a great place to pick up a new release or an old classic. It's not a huge store, but they pack quite a bit into the space. There's a great section dedicated to local history and local writers, and the children's section is noteworthy. They appreciate loyalty. For just $10, you can get a member card that entitles you to 10 percent off.
Sandmeyer's Bookstore is located at 714 S. Dearborn St. Chicago, in the South Loop, (312) 922-2104
"Like many huskies, Ramona often acts like a big, aloof cat and sleeps in her window all day."(Photo by snickclunk via the Creative Commons on Flickr)
Uncharted Books is a lovely used book store in Logan Square that opened back in 2012, one of the newer used stores in town. (Thank you, Kickstarter!) They've got a solid collection of books in excellent condition, including some rarer finds. The store often hosts events. The space is low-key and comfortable place to hang for an afternoon. Most importantly is it's dog-friendly. Whether or not you have your own dog, you should say hello to the store husky named Ramona.
Uncharted Books is located at 2620 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Logan Square
THE BOOK TABLE
Are you the type of person who wants to support a local business but is also kind of cheap (or broke!)? Do you mind a trip to Oak Park? Head to this "fiercely independent" book store, which makes a point of giving you a discount off the sticker price on new books wherever they can (they also have a selection of used books). They also have a great local history section—not just on Chicago but Oak Park itself and its two most famous natives, Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway.
The Book Table is located in 1045 Lake St. in Oak Park, (708) 386-9800
Armadillo's Pillows bills itself as having "common, uncommon, and hard-to-find used books." This is a great place to come by when you want something new, but don't want to spend a lot. You can find some great deals under $9 and even some for just a buck. The staff is friendly and helpful in pointing you in the right direction, making recommendations and even getting in touch with you if they get something in you might like. It's got a bohemian vibe right down to the incense burning.
Armadillo's Pillow is located at 6753 N. Sheridan Rd. in Rogers Park
A recently made-over biography section (City Lit Books/Facebook)
CITY LIT BOOKS
This is the place to go in Logan Square to pick up the latest bestseller or something a little more off-the-beaten path in a setting that feels very warm and neighborly. It's a comfy place to hang around once you've made your selection or you just wrapped up an event. Their staff recommendations are almost novellas. They care! The store hosts its own full roster of events, including open mics, book clubs, story time and some great author appearances. A tip for drivers: there's a lot of free parking in back.
City Lit is located at 2523 N. Kedzie Blvd. in Logan Square, (773) 235-2523
Curbside Books & Records, a small shop with a very friendly staff inside Revival Food Hall
Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Co., a store that sells books whose proceeds go to 826CHI
After-Words, a downtown shop that puts its new and used books alongside each other
Anderson's Book Shop, a great local chain if you're in the burbs and want something besides Barnes & Noble.