O-Issue 2012: Bookstores

When an 8 million volume library system just won’t cut it.

By Emma Broder

The following survey of Hyde Park’s bookstores is for people who want to buy textbooks in person; for people who scan through a book from the Reg and love it so much they need their own copy, or want a beautiful edition of a book they enjoyed reading for class; for those who need a place to hide for the evening; for bargain hunters; for seekers of an extended coffee break; for readers.

57th Street Books is on East 57th Street, a few doors before Z&H and the Med if you’re walking away from campus. You might miss the sign if you’re not looking for it, since the store is a series of rooms in a basement. The rooms are arranged by subject, with a directory in the front. If you need to buy a gift for a child, 57th Street Books is one of the best places in Hyde Park to do it—their selection of children’s books is phenomenal, and includes both classics and promising new releases. If you’re shopping for yourself, there’s still plenty to browse through: A nice selection of postcards, stationery, and notebooks are in the front room, as is a diverse offering of magazines and journals. The cookbook section is downright impressive. Because of its petite scale, 57th Street Books has an intimate neighborhood feeling to it (Obama’s been spotted there), and a table in Room 3 stocked daily with The New York Times. Do watch out for the prices here, which can be high.

O’Gara & Wilson is several blocks east of 57th Street Books, between South Blackstone and Harper Avenues. Full of used, antique, and rare books, this space and its merchandise are loaded with charm, quirk, and authenticity. Whether you emerge with a gem from the boxes of old maps and postcards at the counter, or a first-edition, signed Dean Young book, or a black-and-white photography folio, you’ll feel that you have been transported by the store’s magical atmosphere. It’s tempting to go to O’Gara & Wilson just to look at the cool stuff on the shelves, but buy something if you can, because the store is struggling and needs steady business if it’s going to stay open—which it should, since it’s one of the best stores in Hyde Park. Prices range from very low to very high, depending on what you’re buying. Don’t miss the life-size figurine in the back.

Across the street from O’Gara and Wilson is Powell’s Bookstore. Powell’s has three locations in Chicago, with another in Lakeview and University Village. On your first visit to Powell’s, the sheer quantity of books in the building might stun you. It’s a gigantic store, and this unfortunately promotes disjointed, dazed browsing. Powell’s is thus best entered with a purpose, a general direction, or a steady inner compass. Maybe you’ll descend to the basement to look for a foreign language book (Be careful. They’re not organized! At all!), or head for the fiction section, which is straight ahead as you walk in the door. In any case, be prepared to climb: There are places where the bookshelves reach the ceiling, or come close to it. Powell’s can be a minutes-long errand or an hours-long exploration. Can’t find time to go during the day? They’re open until 11 p.m., so you can head over after dinner.

The Barnes & Noble on South Ellis Avenue is the official campus bookstore and is attached to a café that serves Starbucks coffee. There’s not much to recommend in the bookstore itself. It has a small selection for a Barnes & Noble and a downright shameful one for a university bookstore, though oddly enough, the self-help and diet book section is well-stocked (September is as good a time as any to begin your New Year’s resolutions!). The café is a fine place to hang out with friends or do work, and has lots of snacks, hot drinks, and decent baked goods. If you go upstairs, you’ll find school and dorm supplies to survive the quarter, plus many of your assigned textbooks. It’s clear that the main draw of the bookstore is its ever-expanding quantity of University of Chicago clothing and merchandise. The paraphernalia takes up almost as much floor space as the books do. It may have been where you came with your parents on move-in day to buy your first UChicago sweatshirt, but it’s likely that you won’t spend too much time here during the year.

The legendary Seminary Co-op Bookstore is still located in the basement of the church on South University Avenue and East 58th Street. Be sure to visit this historic space before the Co-op moves to a location one block east on South Woodlawn Avenue late this fall, where they hope to preserve the experiential quality of the original space. The Co-op is, as its name suggests, member-owned, with about 50,000 shareholders at last count. To join, you purchase three shares at $10 each, and in return, you get a 10 percent discount on all your purchases. If you don’t mind buying books and textbooks new, the Co-op is a great place to do that—it’s widely considered to be the best academic bookstore in the country. Even if you don’t need something for class, you can wander the Co-op’s underground maze of books in a dreamlike state to sample diverse titles from each section. You might soak in the feeling of a place with a deep sense of identity, or find a quiet corner to look over your found treasures. Luckily, there is no cell phone service, so the bookstore remains mercifully quiet most of the time.