Our bookstore odyssey stopover in the Windy City brought us to Barbara’s Bookstore, a powerhouse indie with five locations in the Chicago area and one in Boston. Created over 50 years ago, Barbara’s offers a wide selection of fiction and nonfiction, including Chicago travel guides and history. Their excellent staff picks include SCIENCE IS CULTURE by Adam Bly, UNDER THE DOME by Stephen King, and GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD by a favorite author of mine, Michael Chabon. We visited the East Huron Street location downtown, and in honor of President Obama’s city, picked up one of his recommendations, THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM by Cixin Liu, consumed within 48 hours by my cohort Flannery James, who wholeheartedly seconds President Obama’s endorsement.
The first Barbara’s Bookstore opened on Wells Street in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood in the early 1960’s. It was a large, shambling, literary bookstore with creaky wood floors and dust dating back to the early 1950’s. The closest thing they had to a computer was a plug-in cash register, pen and paper and a staff that knew every book in the store by heart.
The retail book industry has changed dramatically in the five decades since Barbara’s beginnings. Along the way, Barbara’s discovered they could coexist with the huge national chains and thrive by finding unique locations and creating personal, full-service stores where you don’t expect to find them.
The chain encompasses two types of stores. There are large, neighborhood stores, called Barbara’s Bookstore and the smaller, ‘niche’ stores in high traffic locations like airports and hospitals called Barbara’s Bestsellers.
Barbara’s has earned a reputation in Chicago for high-quality inventory and informed service. They love books. Twice they have been named by the Chicago Tribune as one of the 100 best things about the city. The alternative newspaper, Newcity, has recognized Barbara’s author event schedule as the best in Chicago.
Chicago is home to many excellent longstanding indie bookstores, including Women & Children First specializing in feminist, lesbian, gay and children’s literature, the Seminary Co-op specializing in academic books of literary and scholarly interest, 57th Street Books which offers general interest fiction and nonfiction and children’s books, and Unabridged Bookstore, which features fiction, poetry, travel, LGBTQ and children’s literature. We wish we could visit them all, but alas the road calls. Cleveland, here we come!