Above the sidewalk on Lincoln Avenue in Lincoln Square, amidst awnings for trendy shops, restaurants and theaters, hangs an unassuming, handwritten sign, which simply reads, “Books.”
If you walk through the narrow door below the sign, the antique, pleasantly musty smell of paper is the first thing you encounter. When your eyes adjust to the dim lighting, piles upon piles of books appear, stacked from floor to ceiling in seemingly no order at all. After a moment, you may notice the handwritten labels taped to the haphazard shelves designating “classics,” “art,” “kids,” “Harry Potter,” “comics”; or hear the friendly “Hello, can I help you?” of Jim Mall, the store owner, who is most likely hidden by yet another stack of books.
In this 600-square-foot space known as Ravenswood Used Books, Mall boasts a selection of about 20,000 books — which is about 33 books for every square foot, and a pretty tight squeeze for shoppers.
Mall jokes that the atmosphere of his shop is “a rummager’s dream, or a claustrophobic’s nightmare.” In either case, the store is undeniably unique, and a fun, local place to shop for yourself or any book lover this winter.
Reading and relishing
There are more than 20 independently owned used bookstores in Chicago, mostly concentrated on the North Side. Each one has a different atmosphere. Some, like Ravenswood Used Books and Bookman’s Corner in Lakeview, are small and reflect a sense of organized chaos. Others are more ordered and cozy, like Myopic Books in Wicker Park, while others still have a funky feel with an equal focus on music, like Shake, Rattle & Read Book Box in Uptown.
Aside from the appeal of used bookstores themselves, it a great time to buy used books in general. “People are buying, selling and reading more books than ever,” Mall said. “Our books are really cheap and our selection is often even better than the library.”
Ravenswood Used Books has seen an increase in sales, Mall said, crediting the economic downturn for the increased interest in used books and in his business.
“When people lose jobs, change jobs or have their hours reduced, they have more time at home and more time to read,” Mall said, “They can’t afford the expensive entertainment that they used to buy, and many find something comforting in books.”
People are not only thinking of themselves when it comes to finding thrifty, secondhand purchases. Mall said he expects traffic in the store to continue increasing during and after the holiday season, as people are finding used books as a “green,” inexpensive and creative way to shop for others.
He explained that December and January are always some of his best months for sales. This is in part because people spend more time indoors when the weather worsens, and in part because of the holidays.
“Before and after the holidays, people come in looking for books that are used, new, like new and out-of-print, for gifts,” Mall said. When asked if he is aware that he is indirectly encouraging people to “re-gift” used items, he laughed and said he thinks the practice is “great and totally acceptable,” even if people are passing used books off as new.
He clarified that although it undermines the holiday spirit a bit, his booming winter sales in January are mostly the result of people buying items for themselves that they may not have received over the holidays.
“People spend so much on other people in December, so by the time January rolls around, they are ready to indulge in themselves a little bit,” Mall said.
At the start of the new year, he also usually gets an influx of donated and sold books, as people give away presents they have received or clean out their stuff as a New Year’s resolution.
“At that point, it is not so much about the money, but rather about reorganizing their lives,” Mall said. Mall shrugs and smiles at the mention of reorganizing his own life and store. He rather likes the chaotic feel, and it shows.