Sitting in the center of America's heartland, Illinois comprises 58,583 square miles of flat land spread out on three sides around Chicago, famously nicknamed by the writer Carl Sandburg the "City of the Big Shoulders," a "tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities."

Chicago's bookselling market is just as imposing. With 239 stores, Illinois ranks fifth in the country in total number of bookstores—and more than half of those serve Chicagoland. Among them are more than 90 independent bookstores, including 43 of ABA members and 28 of CBA members. Twenty-two of Barnes & Noble's 35 Illinois stores are in Chicagoland, three of them inside the city limits. Thirty of Borders's 40 Illinois stores are located in the metro area, though only nine of its 25 Waldenbooks stores. Eleven Borders stores and two Waldenbooks are located in Chicago itself, including what several publishers' reps said they consider to be one of Borders's top stores, the superstore located on a heavily trafficked corner of North Michigan Avenue, the hub of the city's famed Magnificent Mile shopping district.

Illinois ranks fifth among the 50 states in population, with more than 12 million residents. Nearly three million people (including Oprah Winfrey, the most powerful person in the book industry today) live in Chicago proper, with another seven million clustered in the 134 suburban towns dotting its 5,000-square-mile metro area.

The concentration of bookstores, along with a sophisticated populace whose median household income of $47,977 is 10% above the national average, and the proximity of 400,000 students enrolled at the area's 57 colleges and universities, altogether have made Chicagoland one of the most vibrant—and competitive—bookselling markets in the country. With stakes this high, it's no surprise that the first salvoes of the fierce bookstore wars between the chains and the independents that erupted elsewhere in the mid-1990s were fired in Sandburg's "stormy, husky, brawling" city in 1981, when discount chain Crown Books opened dozens of stores in the area, displacing the locally based chain, Kroch's and Brentano's, which had dominated the area's bookselling scene since 1907, accounting for 30% of the area's book sales as late as 1980.

"It wasn't such a bad thing. Kroch's decline opened the door for Barnes & Noble and Borders, and the independents, too," one publisher's rep recently told PW.

Less than five years after both Barnes & Noble and Borders blew into the Windy City in 1991, Kroch's closed its doors. Crown itself became the next—and largest—casualty, filing bankruptcy in 2001 and closing 91 stores, many of them in Chicagoland. Books-a-Million acquired seven Chicago-area Crown stores that same year, thus easing that chain's entry into the local market. BAM's five remaining Illinois stores are all in Chicagoland, including its single surviving city store, located under the "El" tracks in the Loop.

With Borders opening six superstores and Barnes & Noble opening three stores in Chicagoland in the last five years alone, many independents have survived by maintaining a clearly defined specialty, whether it be architecture (Prairie Avenue); African-American (Afrocentric); civil war and military (Abraham Lincoln Bookshop); feminist (Women & Children First); gay and lesbian (Unabridged); personal growth and spirituality (Transitions Bookplace); history and mystery (Centuries and Sleuths) or scholarly tomes (Seminary Co-op). Or, in the case of Book Cellar, selling wine along with reading material.

Other, more general bookstores have succeeded by staking out less crowded territory. Barbara's Books, which opened its doors in Chicago in 1963, now has 11 locations scattered throughout the U.S., six of them in Chicagoland, including its 8,500-sq.-ft. flagship store, which relocated three years ago from Barbara's original Old Town location—uncomfortably close to several nearby bookstores—to the up-and-coming, but underserved, University of Illinois— Chicago neighborhood southwest of the Loop, with its 30,000 students and 14,000 employees.

"We're doing well, because we try to be creative. We take advantage of every opportunity to bring books to where the people are," said Barbara's co-owner Don Barliant. That means locating stores in hospitals, airports, even a Macy's.

Despite their financial stability, several well-established independents have been forced to close, even as Chicago's robust economy (with its $423 billion gross regional product) continues to grow. Reading on Walden, which opened in 1992, shut its doors this past May, while the 22-year-old Savvy Traveler, located just steps away from Chicago's Art Institute, will close within the month.

"We're all getting gentrified. Rents are so high," said John Presta, owner of Reading on Walden. "Sales were fine. But we could not negotiate a long-term lease."

"It has nothing to do with book sales," co-owner Sandye Wexler added. "Our sales have gone up every year but three: the Gulf War, after 9/11 and now, because of construction. We lost our lease. The building is becoming a condo."

Several publishers' reps said bookstores inside Chicago's city limits contend with rising rents and stiff competition. At the same time, the region's swelling population continues to push out beyond the city. The bookselling scene is moving up Lake Michigan's shoreline to the city's wealthy northern suburbs—where the average household income easily tops $200,000, four times higher than the city of Chicago's $54,000.

One North Shore store, the Bookstall at Chestnut Court, posted a 5% increase in sales this past fiscal year and a 10% increase in sales in January. "Our patrons want to support us and to keep the village of Winnetka viable," said Roberta Rubin, the store's owner for the past 25 years. "They're educated, and want their children to be well read. These are people who are already thinking about colleges when their children are only five years old."

But as commission rep Bill McGarr told PW, it's not just a well-educated customer base with considerable disposable income that accounts for the success of the North Shore booksellers: they also are "a savvy bunch of promoters" who, despite their longevity and loyal customer base, never stop hustling for business.

For instance, despite being located 21 miles from downtown Chicago, Bookstall transacts about 20%—25% of its business within the city. Although scores of bookstores of all kinds are concentrated in Chicago proper, Rubin and her 24 employees sell books at "all the downtown clubs and office buildings," as well as to groups, organizations and trade show attendees meeting downtown. "We're constantly traveling all over the city, selling and delivering books," Rubin explained. "We're known for our flexibility."

Bookselling Health Index
Household Income: $47,977

Population: 12,714,000

Independent Bookstores: 133

Chain Bookstores: 106

Total Bookstores: 239

Big-box Stores: 249

Total Stores: 488

Stores per Capita: 1 per 26,053

Per Capita Rank: 37