In his poem “Chicago,” Carl Sandburg describes the nation’s third-largest city as the “Hog Butcher of the World/ Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat/ Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler”—but he may as well have added that it is also the city of many bookstores. Of the 65 Illinois bookstores that are Great Lakes Independent Bookstore Association members, about 50% are located inside Chicago’s city limits; scores more serve the suburbs.

Lynne Mooney, a co-owner of Women & Children First, a feminist bookstore, described Chicago’s bookstore scene as “dynamic,” adding, “The bookstores here all have strong and distinct personalities and people are not afraid to take risks.”

There are, of course, full-service general bookstores, such as 57th Street Books, located in Hyde Park. It’s just a few blocks from the legendary Powell’s Books, which is renowned for its huge inventory of used and remaindered books. Other general bookstores include Sandmeyer’s in the South Loop, Madison Street Books in the West Loop, and Volumes BookCafe in Wicker Park; Volumes also operates a 1,500-sq.-ft. satellite bookstore in the heart of the Magnificent Mile, the upscale shopping district on North Michigan Avenue.

According to Volumes co-owner Rebecca George, attendees at this year’s American Library Association Annual Conference, set to run June 22–27, who stop by the store’s Wicker Park location will receive 50% discounts on coffee and tea.

As Mooney pointed out, the indies scattered around the Windy City are doing well because each is unique and fills a distinct niche. In Logan Square, City Lit is a general bookstore with a large inventory of children’s books, while the Book Cellar nearby is a general bookstore with a wine bar. Unabridged Bookstore in Lake View, another general bookstore, stocks a broad selection of LGBTQ literature. In River West, Semicolon Bookstore specializes in Black literature, while the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop specializes in books on the Civil War and about the U.S. presidents, especially the 16th. Da Book Joint, a 150-sq.-ft. store in a retail space created from rehabbed shipping containers, opened its doors in Bronzeville, on Chicago’s South Side, in late 2021. It specializes in African American titles across all genres, for both adults and children, though owner Verlean Singletary noted, “Our biggest section is books for tweens and teens.”

The city’s two newest niche bookstores—The Understudy, a theater café and bookstore in Andersonville, and Skunk Cabbage, a Logan Square bookstore specializing in environmental issues and sustainability that hosts workshops for community members—both opened their doors this spring.

Exile in Bookville is located in the historic Fine Arts Building on South Michigan Avenue downtown. EiB sells vinyl records along with books, and boasts a large inventory of music titles and a wall of small press releases.

“There are a lot of new faces on the bookselling scene,” noted Javier Ramirez, who worked for 25 years as a bookseller at a number of Chicagoland stores before opening EiB with business partner Kristin Gilbert on Independent Bookstore Day 2021. Echoing Mooney, Ramirez praised the collegiality of his fellow booksellers, and maintained that their success is due to each “doing weird things” to realize their vision for their bookstores. “We all have the same common goal, but different identities.” He added that EiB is offering 15% discounts on store-branded T-shirts and tote bags to ALA attendees. “So wear your badge!”

Founded in 2016 as a used bookstore, Pilsen Community Books in the Pilsen neighborhood became an employee-owned and -operated bookstore in 2020 that sells both new and used books. Seminary Co-op, located near the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park, was founded in 1961 to sell scholarly books; four years ago, it tweaked its mission and now bills itself as “the country’s first not-for-profit bookstore whose mission is bookselling.”

One of Chicago’s newest booksellers, Tim Wurman, the owner of Three Avenues Bookshop in West Lakeview, perhaps sums up best what makes Chicago’s bookselling community so special: “We’ve made a lot of friends since we opened our doors last fall,” he said. “Rebecca George at Volumes, Javier Ramirez at Exile, Danni Mullen at Semicolon—those are our three main mentors. And we got to know so many others planning the Independent Bookstore Crawl in April. Chicago booksellers have welcomed us into their community. They rock!”