Just off the beaten path of Sherman Avenue, tucked inconspicuously into an alleyway unseen to most passersby, lies Bookends and Beginnings. White footprints painted on the alley’s asphalt lead pedestrians to the bookshop’s door. Inside may be the last refuge for Evanston’s literary community.
Bookends and Beginnings opened in 2014 in a building that once housed Bookman’s Alley, a store that played an enduring role in Evanston’s book-loving community for more than three decades. Bookends is a strikingly beautiful space; it is full of long, well-stocked wood shelves, and many paper tabs inviting shoppers to learn more about the owner’s favorite books. There is history in this place, a deep reverence towards the act of physical book buying that is in danger of disappearing from Evanston for good.
To preserve this tradition, the store has heavily invested in its web presence, promoting itself primarily through its Facebook page and a monthly newsletter that reaches more than 4,500 people. In a competitive business climate that has seen a sharp turn towards online shopping, the stakes are simply too high for Bookends to ignore the internet’s power.
At the same time, owner Nina Barrett hopes their digital efforts ensure that more people understand the value of unplugging from the web for the sake of reading. Her store provides a space that promotes the value of deliberate, concentrated reading – something that has been challenged by the web’s emphasis on fast-paced information and resulting short attention spans.
“We feel that the experience that you have when you unplug is a very intellectually important experience,” Barrett says. “It’s kind of like going to the gym and exercising when you lead a very sedentary experience.”
Through their efforts, Barrett and her husband Jeff Garrett, who helps manage the store, have already started to revive a piece of Evanston’s literary past. Bookman’s Alley long served the community as an intimate, overstuffed bookstore, immortalized in Audrey Niffenegger’s bestseller The Time Traveler’s Wife. The store was well-known for its endless towers of used books, stacked precariously high. Its owner, Roger Carlson, was a lively figure who was always eager to discuss books.
“We understood it was an institution, but we didn’t want to run an antiquarian bookstore,” Barrett says. “Without adopting [Carlson’s] business model, we wanted to preserve the sense of a quirky literary space and honor it in that way.”
While Bookman’s Alley closed at Carlson’s retirement, Evanston has rapidly seen the damage of a changing marketplace for traditional independent bookstores. The city has seen two other traditional used bookstores – the Book Den and Howard’s Books – permanently shut down in the past year.
While Bookends and Beginnings sits just half a block from Barnes & Noble, the owners know their bigger concern is the threat of online booksellers, particularly Amazon. At Bookends in mid-April, Evanston resident and economic analyst Matt Cunningham presented “Amazon and Empty Storefronts,” one of first wide-ranging examinations into the myriad impacts of the web behemoth on local economies. Among its findings: With Amazon’s $5.6 billion of book sales in 2014, the company could have created the equivalent of 3,600 independent bookshops.
Amazon’s impact on the economy, Barrett says, is “retail climate change” for all physical stores.
Bookends still depends heavily on the web to reach out to more prospective customers. Garrett in particular works carefully to maintain the store’s online presence, noting with pride that the store comes up as Evanston’s best bookstore on Yelp. The store recently hired Weinberg freshman Tomer Cherki, in part to get them on Twitter. Still, Garrett says, “We want to be a physical store.”
For that reason, Bookends uses its web presence to promote its many in-store events, including author talks, cooking lessons and, in late April, an open mic thrown by Helicon, Northwestern’s literary magazine. On a drizzly afternoon, Weinberg junior Mahalia Sobhani read her poem “Sprung” to the rapt attention of a room of fellow students. Sobhani was struck by the unique atmosphere of the store, so quaint in a downtown littered with big-box bookstores and other retailers.
“Especially for a community like Evanston that’s a very urban kind of suburb, you can get very caught up in going to the bigger stores,” Sobhani says. “We couldn’t do something like this at Barnes & Noble, and this store really gives a character to the community.”
While Garrett and Barrett acknowledge the challenges of keeping a bookstore afloat in the 21st century, their backgrounds have given them the knowledge they needed to succeed from the start. Before retiring, Garrett worked almost two decades at the Northwestern library, often focusing on international children’s literature, a passion he’s continued in the store. Barrett has published several books, in addition to spending 15 years working part-time on and off at Women and Children First, a feminist bookstore in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood.
For the couple, the success of their bookstore isn’t just an idle passion. It is their lives, and it has given them a mission to preserve a piece of the world that threatens in a changing social and economic climate.
“We are cultural warriors,” Barrett says. “We have to advocate for [bookstores] to be a piece of our lives that we don’t want to lose. If it goes away, there’s a piece of social community that goes away with it.”