#295: Ravenswood Used Books and the Fortune Cookies

March 17th, 2014

If a smoke-belching factory symbolizes the 19th century and the car represents the 20th century, the empty storefront should be the logo, sigil and calling card of the 21st century.

And there’s soon going to be another one.

Ravenswood Used Books isn’t closing, just moving south from the spot in Lincoln Square where it enjoyed the foot traffic from Old Town School of Folk Music hipsters and yuppity urban moms for the last 14 years. They’ll be heading to Montrose and Damen soon, the store’s sole employee, a trim woman with cropped blonde hair, tells me as I make my purchases.

They’ll have more space at the new spot. Less foot traffic, but a more stable lease situation. The store’s been on a month-by-month the entire time, a DNAinfo article told me. The article also told me there’s a sale on to help thin the stock before the move, so, you know, get on that.

The move seems like a good thing. Or a terrible one. You never know which these things are until it’s too late.

As anyone who’s been in Ravenswood Used Books can tell you, you don’t walk inside. Once you’re in that storefront along a foot-traffic stretch of Lincoln, just past the Davis Theater and a 30-year-old Italian restaurant that up and vanished in the night a month or two ago, you see walking is an option your forfeited.

You sidle down those thin, book-packed aisles, stacked up down left right with a beautifully curated collection of oddities. You inch down them. Walking would knock over the books stacked from the ground up. Walking would disrupt and upset the amazing selection owner Jim Mall has cultivated. Creeping, sidling, inching is the only way to get through those wire-thin aisles between books.

Here you’ll find Doc Savage adventures in an imagined pulp jungle and old sociology texts from the early 1900s. You’ll find potboilers stacked to the ceiling and a collection of Chicagoana with seemingly every word Royko wrote. Kids books and cookbooks and novels and reference manuals, histories and photos and every other topic men and women have ever deemed worthy enough to touch ink to paper over.

In those thin aisles between sky-high bookshelves, you’ll find the world. You might not find the exact book you wanted, but you’ll find a hundred you need.

“Can I help you?” Mall asked a young man crouching by a stack of philosophy textbooks.

“I’m looking for works by blind authors. I have a list,” the young man said, unfolding a piece of paper.

“Blind authors?” Mall repeated before starting to list names off the top of his head.

Mall is gray-haired and slim, the perfect physique for getting through the store. He’s a well-known if daunting figure to the casual book collector. I asked the blonde woman to put my purchases to the side while I hit an ATM. On my way out the door, I heard Mall compliment my picks to another customer and I smiled proudly.

All through my shopping, two men kept filling up cardboard boxes with books and hauling them out of the store. The blonde woman directed and chatted with them. There was a pile of fortune cookies on one of the shelves.

The symbol of the 21st century is the empty storefront and there’s about to be one more of them.

I don’t know if it’s a good move or a bad one for the store, if the new location will drive the little shop down or if it will be the beginning of a new era where, 50 years down the road, someone won’t believe the rumor they heard that the Montrose and Damen mainstay used be located somewhere else.

Time will tell for the store, I guess, but that little slip of Lincoln Avenue by the Davis Theater and the missing Italian restaurant will be weaker, will be more ordinary and corporate.

The store might lose. The neighborhood definitely will.

The blonde woman told one of the movers she never eats more than one fortune cookie from the pile each day. She doesn’t want to get confused about the future, she joked.

I know how she feels.

Comment on this story

The DNAinfo article was really quite good

A few more closed businesses:

What's this?

You are currently reading #295: Ravenswood Used Books and the Fortune Cookies by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

  • Get Stories by Email

  • Chicago Corruption Walking Tour

    Join the email list for tour dates and info.