Chicago has a rich trove of bookstores, all the way from the legendary Kroch’s and Brentano’s on Wabash Avenue, once a magnet for book lovers visiting the Loop (or in the case of some of us, visiting the Loop to go to Kroch’s), and now, alas, long gone, to Powell’s over on Lincoln Avenue, a great barn of a place full of treasures, and the big chains. We’ve also got more used bookstores than I can keep track of. But there are also the smaller neighborhood stores, some specialized, but most of general interest, catering to the readers in their neighborhoods. One of the best is Unabridged Bookstore, in Lakeview on the North Side.
Unabridged opened on November 1, 1980, in what was then the main shopping strip in Chicago’s Boys’ Town. And, true to its guiding philosophy of providing a range of books for its neighbors, it was remarkable for its broad selection of gay and lesbian oriented titles. (This was before everybody was doing it.) It was not, however, a “gay and lesbian bookstore,” although that’s still a specialty. Then, as now, there were current best-sellers, art books, coffee-table books, history, poetry, travel — just about everything. (They also have calendars year around, all kinds.) And it’s grown over the past thirty years, so now there is more of just about everything, including an award-winning children’s section. (Well, the neighborhood has changed a bit.)
I want to stress one thing about Unabridged: it is not a coffee bar, it is not an Internet café, it is not a place to lounge, it is a bookstore. It has books, books, and more books, a place where you can easily spend a couple of hours browsing, egged on by the handwritten staff recommendations affixed to the shelves, over two floors of books and periodicals. (The basement annexe opened a few years ago and is the home of the travel section and calendars, technical and science books, and one or two other categories.)
One welcome characteristic of Unabridged — the staff are all book people and know what they’re talking about, so you can trust those recommendations. And that leads naturally into something that is important to habitués of bookstores: the ambiance is relaxed, friendly, with a distinct lack of busy little clerks nailing you when you walk in the door to ask if you’re finding everything OK. (To which my standard response is a somewhat testy “Not yet.”) The staff is friendly but not obtrusive — they’re there when you need them — and the space is open enough that you don’t feel like you’re in a cave, but cozy enough that you don’t feel like you’re walking through a mall. It gets crowded on weekends, but there’s a distinct lack of bustle: it’s a nice, relaxed, thoughtful kind of crowded, composed of serious browsers.
And, in a time when the inventory in the big chains is becoming — well, “barren” comes to mind — you can still find treasures at Unabridged, without having to stumble past the latest marketing displays for the latest best-seller. (And don’t let me forget the permanent section of sale books, not just remainders of stuff no one wanted to read in the first place, but interesting books at steep discounts.)
It even has a blog, and, as might be expected, can be found on the other usual social media sites.
The place really deserves landmark status, I think.
3251 North Broadway
Chicago, Illinois 60657
M-F, 10-9, Sat & Sun, 10-7