As a former Chicago bookseller, I have always thought that Chicago's bookstores were some of the best in the country. In the years since I left, there has dawned a new golden age as shops like Volumes, Roscoe Books, Semicolon and Madison Street Books came into being, and Pilsen Community Books and The Dial--now Exile in Bookville--changed hands.
Another Chicago bookstore, City Lit Books in Logan Square, was the site of my very first rep night presentation, in November 2013. After closing during the early days of the pandemic, City Lit reopened this summer under new ownership. I first met Stephanie Kitchen, who purchased the bookstore from original owner Teresa Kirschbraun, when she was a librarian who regularly attended publishing industry events; she's someone who always recognized the kinship between those who sell books and those who lend them, and understood the role that booksellers have in our communities.
Can you tell me a little about how you returned to bookselling after a career as a librarian?
It's sort of been a homecoming for me. I first worked in bookstores throughout my college life and while I was in graduate school. I always loved the energy and vibe in independent bookstores. I knew I wanted a book-adjacent career, so I went to graduate school to become a librarian. I've always loved keeping up with what's happening in the publishing world. And while I enjoyed being a librarian, the best part for me, was, of course, working with the books. I always had the dream of having my own store one day and before the pandemic hit, I was starting to research how to make that leap from the library world. I attended the Paz & Associates Bookstore Boot Camp in early 2020. And then the pandemic hit. As we all know, pretty much all aspects of our lives changed, especially our work lives. I decided to put my dream on hold to ride out the pandemic, so to speak. And then in Fall 2020, my local indie shop announced it was closing. On a whim, I reached out to Teresa, the former owner of City Lit, to see if she was interested in selling. It took us a few months to put a deal together and, lo and behold, I took over City Lit in May 2021.
What feels similar to your library work? What's wildly different?
Some things are similar--helping people find good books to read, offering suggestions and "read-a-likes," doing on-the-spot book talks, etc., but some things are very different. I thought I knew a bit about what happens in publishing, but nope. NOPE. Who owns whom, etc., didn't matter so much in the library world. We ordered most of our collections from Ingram. As a librarian, I didn't have to pay attention to publishers as much as I do now. And every publisher has a different way they operate. So that was a bit of a learning curve. And then there is the whole technical side of bookselling. Managing a website, electronic ordering, operating a POS--again my work as a librarian helped, but I still had a lot to learn.
What it's like taking over a shop that closed during the pandemic and giving it new life?
In some ways I got super lucky with the timing of everything. We announced I would be taking over the shop last spring. If you remember, there was a brief period when people were starting to get vaccinated, the mask mandates had been lifted, and the mood was good. Of course, we are dealing with Covid variants now, but when we reopened, it felt like the perfect time. People were starting to get together in public again and the community here was super excited their local bookstore was reopening. And the community support has been awesome! So many people thanking me and my staff for being here and giving this space new life. Teresa worked with me for a few months before the store officially reopened for browsing on June 26, 2021. I had a few bumps in the road, and it's been more work than I could have imagined. I spent many 10-12 hour days in the spring and summer working on getting the store set up again. Even though I took over an existing store, it had closed for browsing in March 2020 so there was a lot of refreshing to do. I painted the shop and moved some sections around (one thing that sticks in my librarian mind is the saying "save the time of the reader"--i.e., make things easier to find). We expanded some sections and condensed others.
What have you learned about your community from selling books there?
They really understand the importance of shopping locally and from independent retailers. Since the pandemic, online ordering has shot way up. But now the community knows they can order from us, save on shipping, and have their items ready for them to pick up at their convenience. They also appreciate a diverse array of selections and voices. Another reason why independent bookstores are so important!
Who among the Chicago booksellers most inspires you? Who has helped you to make this move into a new aspect of the book world and how?
That's a hard one because I think everyone who has survived working in bookstores over the past 18 months is inspiring! My friend Chelsea Elward, former owner of Booked in Evanston, gave me some good advice as I was starting to explore taking over City Lit. I've met a few other booksellers, like Suzy Takacs from the Book Cellar and Javier Ramirez from Exile in Bookville, who have also offered their time. Booksellers that I haven't met yet that inspire me are Mary from Madison Street Books and Dani from Semicolon--Mary for opening a bookstore a week before the pandemic hit which now is thriving, and Dani for the way she gives back and supports the community. Plus her gallery is awesome!
What do you do when you're not in the store?
Haha. Seriously though--I have a small child, so I try to spend as much time with him and my husband when I'm not working and do things they enjoy. Usually that means playing with Lego and trying to get my son interested in books! --Jeff Waxman