Bookends & Beginnings battles the effects of the pandemic and the giant shadow of Amazon

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Bookends & Beginnings is tucked away down an alley off Sherman Avenue. Credit: Bookends and Beginnings

When Nina Barrett first visited Bookman’s Alley, Evanston’s quaint downtown bookstore tucked away in an alley off Sherman Avenue, she never imagined she would be writing the store’s next chapter some 30 years later. .

In the fall of 1985, Barrett, then a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, saw the second-hand bookstore as an ideal subject for a profile story to write for the class. A labor of love for longtime owner Roger Carlson, Bookman’s Alley had a unique aura that inspired it.

“There was this ‘you went back in time, a Harry Potter kind of feeling,’ and it was so atmospheric. So, of course, I wrote the story,” she said.

Years later, the same store would be enshrined in pop culture as the key setting for Audrey Niffenegger’s bestselling 2003 novel. The time traveler’s wife, later turned into a film of the same name.

And though Barrett’s career will take her first from journalist to published author, then to cooking school, she will never forget Bookman’s. When the opportunity arose in 2013 to buy the store from a retired Carlson, she and her husband, Jeff Garnett, an expert in children’s books and special collections, jumped at the chance to honor the store’s heritage while putting their own stamp on it.

Nina Barrett bought the store with her husband in 2013. Credit: Bookends and Beginnings

“I wasn’t at all interested in the antiquarian book business, but I knew how lovely the space was and I knew it would make for a fabulous bookstore that I had imagined when I arrived in Evanston,” said Barrett said.

Now dubbed Bookends & Beginnings, the bookstore’s creaky floorboards, vintage fixtures and mystical atmosphere make it a testament to years gone by. But it’s certainly not stuck in the past either.

Faced with outsized competition from conglomerate booksellers, a global trend of independent bookstores closing, a pandemic, and the evolving challenges of brick-and-mortar retail, Barrett fought relentlessly, constantly evolving her store to maintain it. alive and thriving.

Marked by a plaque hammered into the side of a brick-walled building and a street sign pointing to the nearly hidden driveway entrance, Bookends’ secret location at 1712 Sherman Ave. earned it the nickname “speakeasy” for books, as one Yelp review called it.

But with increased inventory, pandemic capacity restrictions and declining foot traffic, the bookstore could no longer afford a hidden location.

So in January 2021, Barrett made its biggest change when Bookends expanded to a storefront next to Saville Flowers at 1716 Sherman Ave., which now serves as a site for bestselling books, gifts and stationery.

Bookends & Beginnings, long hidden in an alley, has opened a storefront on Sherman Avenue. Credit: Bookends and Beginnings

“We’re growing and we need more space, but a lot of the motivation was just to have a foothold on the main street where we’re visible,” Barrett said. “We absolutely attract a sort of walk-in client that we wouldn’t really have here.”

Lotte Dunnell, 26, who has worked at Bookends for 2½ years, said she loves when passers-by discover the store. “Every day people come in and say, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know you were there!’ And now that we have that showcase on the main Sherman strip, we’re getting it more and more,” said Dunnell, who lives in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood.

Barrett’s decision to buy the bookstore was born not just from nostalgia for his days at Northwestern, but from years of experience in the industry as an author and bookseller. After earning her master’s degree and becoming a mother, Barrett worked part-time at Women and Children First while writing books on the side. Her 15 years at the famed feminist bookstore in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood taught her a lot about how to run a bookstore.

By the time she left in 2005, the future for local independent bookstores was bleak. Giant chains like Barnes & Nobles, buoyed by the e-book boom, have pushed smaller stores out of business. “I sometimes call it the massacre of independent bookstores,” Barrett said.

It was then that his career changed. She went to culinary school, earned a chef’s degree, and eventually became a food reporter for NPR’s Chicago affiliate WBEZ.

But Barrett returned to books: She came across an archival collection while working in public relations at Northwestern’s main library, which eventually became her fourth and final book: The Leopold and Loeb Files: An Intimate Look at One of America’s Most Infamous Crimes.

And in 2013, when she learned Bookman’s Alley was closing, she stepped in.

The interior of Bookends & Beginnings is lined with books of all kinds. Credit: Bookends and Beginnings

But all those years in the trenches of the bookstore couldn’t prepare her for what was to come. The crippling effects of the pandemic have crippled many businesses, and Bookends has not been spared. During early business closings, Barrett focused on online order fulfillment, launched a GoFundMe COVID-19 relief fund campaign that raised nearly $50,000 and received a federal grant. Paycheck Protection Program Forgivable Loan of $22,500.

The pandemic appears to be receding, but the existential threat from giant retailers still looms. The bookends outlasted a major competitor, Evanston’s Barnes & Noble store at 1630 Sherman Ave., just a block away. Although the bookstore giant closed its doors in Evanston and Skokie’s Old Orchard shopping center for good in 2020, Barrett still saw a disparity between independent bookstores and publishing giants and decided to do something about it.

Last March, Barrett filed a lawsuit against Amazon and the five largest book publishing companies that represent 80% of books sold nationwide. The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, alleges that these companies intentionally set book prices and control book sales in ways that prevent competition from local booksellers.

“People who have a passion for the business, who really care about the business, are priced evenly because Amazon’s business practices are so unfair,” Barrett said.

An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.

Barrett’s attorneys are awaiting a decision to validate the lawsuit and move it forward. There are no public developments in the lawsuit yet, she said.

On March 2, Amazon announced plans to close its 68 physical stores, many of which are bookstores. Its grocery stores and convenience stores will remain open.

The books are unique products in that they come with a price printed on them, which ensures everyone along the production line is paid fairly, Barrett said. “People think we are asking them to pay more. We ask them to pay what the book is actually worth.

Amazon has, in some ways, hurt Barnes & Noble more than independent bookstores, Barrett said. While the product being sold, eBooks aside, remains the same across the board, one-stop shopping at Amazon usually means buying a book you already know you want.

“You go to Amazon to order it quickly and find it at the cheapest price, and have it thrown on your doorstep without having to get out of your pajamas. That’s not what we’re selling here,” Barrett said.

Leading this battle and beyond, Bookends is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Between book launches, book clubs, speaker events, and writing workshops, the store has become a hub for Evanston’s literary community. It regularly attracts everyone from nationally acclaimed Evanston-based authors to Northwestern faculty, students and alumni, and many others in the publishing industry who have a connection to the college town.

“That’s what a bookstore is supposed to do. It’s meant to be like a focal point and a place where those conversations happen and a place where your literary community becomes visible because it’s networked through the bookstore,” Barrett said.

At Bookends, some customers walk in with a specific author in mind for their purchase and walk away trying to balance a whole pile of new titles in their arms. Others get lost browsing the shelves, reading the back cover blurbs and handwritten recommendations, known as “shelf talkers.”

Antonia Mufarech, 21, is a regular at Bookends. “I love how welcoming and comfortable it is, and I love the little notes. I always read them. Being able to physically see the books and flip through the pages is something I love. It’s very beautiful and it’s not very common these days,” Mufarech said, adding that she doesn’t like ordering books online.

For some, it’s about catching that woody smell of old books you won’t find anywhere else. “Students tell us all the time that they feel so stressed at school, and they’ll just walk in and they feel safe here,” Barrett said. “It’s like a happy place for a lot of people.”

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