In preparing our trip to Chicago we looked up the ‘ten best’ bookshops in the city.  Most proved too far, except for Open Books, a not-for-profit selling new and secondhand books to invest in literacy programmes in the city, some of which take place in the children’s department.

They run a raft of activities from writing workshops to reading clubs and have a sweeping selection of titles – I found a couple of treasures: a classic in the fools’ canon: Paul Radin’s The Trickster, along with a glossed-to-the-hilt edition of Beowulf, allowing this Old English illiterate the illusion of experiencing the poem in the original text.  Luiz bought a series of lectures by Leonard Bernstein, with a book accompanying half a dozen single-sized records, and a mammoth book of cooking techniques.

The selection of books, warmth of the atmosphere and enthusiasm of the staff makes this an ideal spot for book browsing and buying, even before considering its noble social purpose.  This was in strong, bright contrast to the anodyne ambiance and station concourse standard fare of two bookshops affiliated to significant universities in Chicago.  They sold more university-branded clobber (‘merchandise’) than books, a rather dispiriting signal, and the book selection was unimaginative.  I had heard that some large book chains were struggling – now I see why.  And in both cases, playing ‘cool’ music doesn’t make up for a soulless vacuum.

So, if you head to Chicago and want to dip into a bookshop, go for Open Books and other indie places, and steer clear of the big-bland-brands.

Details: 651 W. Lake Street, Chicago

Photo credit: Lacie Slezak at

Chicago - Open Books logo
Book cover - Paul Radin - The Trickster

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