The Bookstores of Hyde Park

hyde park chicago bookstores
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Hyde Park is an epicenter of academic pursuit. Some of the greatest minds in the world have studied or taught at the University of Chicago. The neighborhood houses four prominent bookstores: The Seminary Co-Op, 57th Street Books, O’Gara and Wilson Ltd, and Powell’s. I went to figure out why they needed four bookstores. Or perhaps, to see how four bookstores could coexist in such close proximity. (Each is located along the same couple blocks of 57th Street.) I decided to spend an entire day searching these four stores and constructed a rubric to discover which were the best, most stocked, and easiest to use; I chose seven books at random, either for their necessity in a bookstore, their potential rarity, or both. I would go to each bookstore and walk its halls to see not only which books were at which stores, but how easily they could be located. The books were as follows, and are listed in order of what I thought would be the easiest to find to the hardest: Frankenstein, The Elegant Universe, King John (Shakespeare), The Dark Tower series, any Bible with pictures, Batman Year One, and Everybody Poops. God help me.

My day began at the Seminary Co-Op. Incorporated in 1961, this bookstore crouches in the basement of a building shipped in from the cathedral section of France. The Co-Op is a labyrinth of literature. The rooms twist and turn so much you’d swear they are appearing as you walk toward them the way hallways appear in old Nintendo 64 games. Almost immediately I got a sense I wasn’t going to accomplish my original goal. I found myself far less interested in checking off a predetermined list of books and much more engrossed in what each room had to offer. Directly to the left after entering the store is a section that houses a math cavern, a column of Latin and Greek classics in their original form, and a wall of sheet music and scores. My mouth dropped open. I had to drag myself away to see the other sections of the store, and there were quite a few. Rooms were divided up by topic and everything they had was extensive. Ever seen an entire room of foreign language dictionaries? I kept up with my checklist, but absentmindedly. Their play script corner is vast and I had to remind my eyes to obediently scan for King John between poking around the old Beckett works and collections of one-acts. Here is my begrudging breakdown of the seven books, in order of how easy they actually were to find. They had both texts of Frankenstein (1818 and 1831). There were four editions of King John I found, possibly more in the numerous Shakespeare anthologies. They had The Elegant Universe, and I found Batman: Year One in their surprisingly large graphic novel section. One Bible had maps and their children’s bible had cartoons. The last two I did not find. I asked the gentleman at the front desk about the Dark Tower series and, embarrassingly, about Everybody Poops. He said that the Co-Op didn’t carry them but their sister store, 57th Street books, should.

I didn’t realize that my first two locations were related. 57th Street Books, which opened in the mid eighties, is the pop culture version of its temple monk cousin. I noticed right away upon entering they were selling notebooks, journals, and note cards. They stock magazines and promote books spoken about by NPR, the New York Times, and Oprah. This bookstore certainly had a different feel than the Co-op. There were sections on cooking, crafts, and travel, topics not covered in the first store. The other thing that stuck out in contrast to the Co-Op was there were kids in 57th. Not many, but more than zero. 57th has a more commercial take on the book selling business, but I don’t condemn it for that. The two stores are a ying and a yang and both have their strengths. For instance, it was much easier to find my way around. Aisles were wider and there was a simple table of contents that specified, room by room, where everything was located. New releases were better stocked, and sprinkled all around the store were hand written staff recommendations. My search for seven books was easy in this store and they had almost everything. They were only missing books four and six of the Dark Tower but I suspect that was just a fluke. Everybody Poops was out of stock, but they had The Gas We Pass, a book written in the same literary style.

I filled a glass with gin before writing this next section. My fingers wouldn’t type the words without it. You shouldn’t even be reading this paragraph unless you are puffing fine Cuban tobacco out of a hand-carved wooden pipe. O’Gara and Wilson isn’t a bookstore; it’s a wormhole directly to your great-grandfather’s attic. It was established by Joe O’Gara in the 1930’s and, unlike the first two stores, the items sold here are not new, not by a long shot. Ancient texts surround tables of relics, some stacked at random, some in drawers, old boxes, crates, or wherever the owner can stuff them. I grabbed a book at random from the shelf labeled New Paperbacks: Welsh Poems, published 1973. Other section headings housed even more obscure finds, categories like Oriental Rugs, China/Porcelain, Coins + Metals, and Silver/Pewter/Etc. I kept expecting to see a sign-up sheet for alchemy lessons or a place to get my shoes cobbled. Even more astounding than their selection of books was their hodgepodge of treasures, which are almost too numerous to list and each merit a paragraph or more of their own. They have old bits of clay pots from 200 B.C., play scripts in plastic sleeves, old gray and sepia portraits, ancient sheet music, records, Loony Tunes comics from the eighties, Ebony magazines from the seventies, Sports Illustrated from the sixties, People from the fifties, Harper’s Monthly from the eighteen-nineties, pamphlets, postcards, deeds, stocks, and an eighteen hundred page official radio service manual from 1937. At this point my list of seven was shot. I knew there was no way I would find the items I was looking for at O’Gara’s, but I also realized how little that said about the quality of the time I had spent there. I eyed my own criteria suspiciously as I left for my final stop.

Powell’s has been around for over thirty years and the books there are used, although they have quite a large selection of recent material. The shelves are monstrously tall and there is a basement recess that seems to be forever empty, leaving you to browse in solitude. I noticed something peculiar going on with the pricing. Every book I picked up listed the original price and then listed Powell’s selling price. More often than not, the new price was less than a third of the original. How did they pull it off? I brought a book up to the desk and asked the clerk how they could afford such a fractional price. He shrugged; a gesture that conveyed not ignorance but a sense of mystique. It suggested to me that I was looking a gift horse in the mouth. However they came by these books, used by individuals, classrooms, in bulk, or any other means, didn’t matter. They were on the shelves now and ready for a new set of eyes. Powell’s was arranged into genres, and along with the typical ones were groups like ancient Greece, medieval renaissance, and folklore. Major authors were highlighted for ease of location in the fiction sections, people like Cather, Fitzgerald, Eliot, and Proust. My greatest discovery at Powell’s was that it would be madness to arrive looking for a particular title. If you want a certain book, go to Barnes and Noble. Because they are only stocked with what they receive, the fun of Powell’s is going with a few genres in mind and seeing what hidden gems are waiting on the shelves.

I spent nearly six hours in these stores. It turns out that I didn’t go to figure out the mystery of the four bookstores; I went because I wanted to get lost between the shelves. I thought I was looking for some way to figure them out, to break them into pieces and fit them back together like a puzzle, but that didn’t matter. I didn’t search, I roamed. Each one was a unique experience to my sense of discovery and exploration. In the end, the question, “why four bookstores?” had become moot. Of course, four bookstores — I would have gladly roamed another, quietly introspective and curious as to what wonders it held. Each stands alone, and therein sits the beauty of the bookstore culture of Hyde Park. One store doesn’t have to be enough. Instead of having some arbitrary list of seven books I came away with a far more satisfying list, a wish list of books I would have bought had I ever been offered a job with a salary. You may notice bias in this list, but I post it here so that others may enjoy it, either for its content or for the book search it may inspire within you.

    100 Essential Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know (Barrow)
    The Constants of Nature (Barrow)
    No Impact Man (Beavan)
    Here’s Looking at Euclid (Bellos)
    The Invisible Gorilla (Chabris/Simons)
    Last Words of the Executed (Elder)
    Wordplay (Farb)
    Sharp Objects (Flynn)
    No Such Thing as Silence (Gann)
    The Science of Fear (Gardner)
    Street Renegades (Gavin)
    The Tipping Point (Gladwell)
    Group Theory in the Bedroom (Hayes)
    The Call of Cthulhu and Other Stories (Lovecraft)
    Look at this F*cking Hipster (Mande)
    The Killing Joke (Moore/Bolland)
    Nonsense on Stilts (Pigliucci)
    Everything I Ate (Shaw)
    The Billionaire’s Vinegar (Wallace)
    Long for this World (Weiner)

The Seminary Co-Op
Location: 5757 S. University Ave.
Phone: 773.752.4381
57th Street Books
Location: 1301 E. 57th Street
Phone: 773.684.1300
O’Gara and Wilson
Location: 1448 E. 57th Street
Phone: 773.363.0993
Location: 1501 E. 57th Street
Phone: 773.955.7780


The Bookstores of Hyde Park

Phil Kranyak

About Phil Kranyak

Phil grew up in small town in southeastern Pennsylvania. His family still lives across the street from a cornfield. Phil tried working at the farm when he was too young to get a real job and he left after one day because the farmhand was total creep city. He showed up to Phil's front door the next day wondering why he wasn't at work. Now Phil lives in Chicago and he thinks it was a pretty good choice.

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