I moved to Chicago from Brooklyn nearly two years ago, and my explorations have barely scratched the surface of the multitude of excellent shops, eateries, and interesting places in town. To help me make a book lover’s sightseeing guide, I asked some Chicagoland children’s librarians and book people to suggest pilgrimage-worthy bookstores and nearby spots to visit.
Downtown and The Loop
Andrew Medlar, ALSC past-President and Assistant Chief of Technology, Content and Innovation at Chicago Public Library said, “I feel happy every time I step into Sandmeyer’s Bookstore. A short stroll down Dearborn Street’s Printers Row from Chicago Public Library’s Harold Washington Library Center, Mr. & Mrs. Sandmeyer have filled their shop with the latest & greatest and favorite & fabulous titles for kids and grown-ups alike for several decades now, and they and their fantastic staff are friends to all book lovers–especially of the children’s librarian variety.”
Chicago author James Kennedy is the founder of the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival, an annual nationwide event which screens kid-made movies that dramatize Newbery Medal and Honor books in about 90 seconds. When asked about Chicago bookstores he said there are “too many to mention! Chicago is bursting with superior bookstores.” One of his favorites is After-Words, a new and used bookstore “hidden in plain sight in River North where Illinois dips under Wabash. Their two floors of new and used books is vast, eclectic, and seriously cheap.”
From the Loop, take the CTA red line “El” train to Grand.
North Side: Andersonville, Lincoln Square
Stroll up and down Clark Street in Andersonville and you’ll see hundreds of unique, locally-owned businesses. At the center is Women and Children First bookstore, one of the largest feminist bookstores in the country. Check out smart and politically-minded displays, a large collection of lesbian and gay fiction and non-fiction, and the cozy circle of well-curated children’s books. While you’re in the neighborhood, explore its history in the lovely Swedish American Museum. If you’ve brought small children with you, they’ll enjoy the small children’s museum within where they can play on a viking ship or blast off like Buzz Aldrin. Across the street, the charming Svea Restaurant serves a traditional Scandinavian breakfast and lunch. For a stellar pub experience, try Hopleaf Bar’s vast menu of craft beers and solid food offerings.
From the Loop, take the CTA red line “El” train to Berwyn, or a car (35 minutes).
More than one of the folks I interviewed mentioned The Book Cellar in quaint Lincoln Square. James Kennedy emphasized that they sell “not only books, but also beer and wine. This makes for a raucous atmosphere at their in-store events, like their monthly comedy show by the Kates, or their annual adult spelling bee that I co-host.” Across the street, you can feast at the award-winning Jerry’s Sandwiches or brunch at Café Selmarie. Or just grab a coffee and people-watch on a bench in the public square.
From the Loop, take the CTA brown line “El” train to Western, or a car (30 minutes).
South Side: Hyde Park, Calumet Heights, Bronzeville
Bookended by the scenic University of Chicago campus and the grand Museum of Science and Industry, Hyde Park is home to many cultural and intellectual gems. Margaret Coffee, National Accounts Manager of Schools and Libraries at Sourcebooks recommended 57th St Books for their strong collection of children’s and graphic novels. If you like a bookstore you can get lost in, this one is for you. But don’t worry; the helpful and knowledgeable staff will make sure you find what you’re looking for. A few blocks away you can brunch at neighborhood institution Valois, one of former President Obama’s favorite eateries when he’s in town. If you decide to explore the massive Museum of Science and Industry, you will swoon at the miniature Fairy Castle, designed as an enchanting home to many familiar fairy tale characters.
From the loop, take the Metra train to 55th-56th-57th, a CTA 6 bus to 57th St, or a car (25 minutes).
Located in the middle of residential Calumet Heights, Underground Bookstore is one of the few black-owned bookstores in Chicago and has been in business for 24 years. Children’s librarians will appreciate their well-stocked Afrocentric children’s section. Down the street, check out Popup Dropoff, a take-only spot known for their fried chicken, catfish sandwiches, and “world famous Spaghedough.”
From the Loop, take the CTA J14 bus or a car (25 minutes).
A few blocks north is the stately Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library, which was named for renowned African American surgeon, social activist and civic leader Dr. George Cleveland Hall. Once the workplace of pioneer librarian Charlemae Hill Rollins, this literary landmark was a meeting place for writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.
From the Loop, take the CTA 29 bus or a car (19 minutes).
Northwest Side: Wicker Park
Along North, Division, Milwaukee and Damen Avenues, in Wicker Park, you’ll find an impressive mix of hip boutiques, luxury stores, and vintage shops. Myopic Books, just steps from the Damen Avenue stop on the Blue Line, has been rated the best used bookstore in the city. Behold their three floors of floor-to-ceiling shelves and hidden rooms and you’ll see why! For a more minimal experience, enter the airy Volumes Bookcafe, a new coffee shop and bookstore with a stylish reading nook in the back for the kids. Programming for children goes beyond storytime; they also offer Blind Date with A Book, where kids get to take home their very own mystery book. The co-owners, both former teachers, are planning a Family Book Club, Creative Writing Workshops, Bookmaking Class and Volumes Summer Camp. While you’re in Wicker Park, Lynn Mooney, co-owner of Women and Children First, recommended you sneak into the Secret Agent Supply Co. where you can stock up on spying supplies as well as books. “Secret Agent is the Chicago home of the national writing and literacy group 826,” Lynn explained. “They have writing programs and also a robust program of publishing the work of the Chicago students. These collections are wonderful and carried by bookstores all over Chicago.” James Kennedy also recommended that “if you’re in Wicker Park, loading up on zines and graphic novels at the venerable Quimby’s is a must — you’ll find much there what you can’t find anywhere else, and much more you didn’t even suspect existed.”
From the Loop, take the CTA blue line “El” train to Division or Damen.
Fourteen miles North of the Loop, Evanston is the smart and vibrant home of Northwestern University and has a bustling commercial district. Author and blogger Betsy Bird lives and works here, and recommended you visit Bookends and Beginnings, exclaiming that the shop “boasts the most impressive collection of imported and translated children’s books I’ve ever seen in a bookstore to date.” Children’s Librarian power couple Patrick and Elisa Gall also call Evanston home, and they shared their favorite spots around town: “For tasty bagels and sandwiches try Dempster Street staple Bagel Art Cafe. For some Midwest pie goodness you must go to Hoosier Mama Pie Company (on Chicago Avenue, too). For top-quality burgers (veggie, too), crispy fries, and delicious shakes make sure to line up at Edzo’s Burger Shop. Found Kitchen serves excellent farm-to-table food in a highly curated ‘odds and ends’ atmosphere. And don’t forget Comix Revolution for all of your comic book-buying needs!”
From the Loop, take the CTA purple line “El” train to Davis, or a car (35 minutes).
While you’re in Chicago, look up #MyChicagoBookstore, the social media presence of the Chicagoland Independent Bookstore Alliance (ChIBA), to find out about literary events in town.
Which bookstores did we miss? Let us know in the comments!
Andrea Vaughn Johnson, former Coordinator of School Age Services at Brooklyn Public Library and current member of the ALSC Local Arrangements committee, is also the full-time caregiver of a rambunctious four-year-old in Chicago, IL. They enjoy exploring Chicago’s neighborhoods together and finding new books to add to his overflowing bookshelf.