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Independent bookstores in the Chicago area are renewing themselves

CHICAGO — Renting a Lincoln Park brownstone for $200 might be considered unusual, but a 300-year-old vampire who wears three-piece suits and enjoys the music of Taylor Swift wouldn’t know any better. After all, he too was imprisoned in a vampire dungeon in Naperville.

The fantasy script is the brainchild of Jenna Levine, who wrote the part-romance, part-paranormal novel set in Chicago while stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Levine watched “What We Do in the Shadows,” a documentary-style comedy series chronicling the lives of four Staten Island vampires, and thought it could use a little romance.

Last year, just in time for Halloween, her debut novel, My Roommate Is a Vampire, was published, fulfilling a lifelong dream, she said.

A lot of things helped get the book into the hands of readers and onto the USA Today bestseller list, she said, from a fun cover design to viral videos on Instagram and TikTok. But she said it was “super supportive, super kind, super enthusiastic” independent bookstores across the country that helped push the envelope.

“What (independent bookstores) do for authors, what they do for readers, what they do for the communities they’re in, I can’t say enough wonderful things about it,” Levine said.

There are dozens of independent bookstores in Chicagoland, each with distinct book recommendations and storefronts that the owners say reflect the communities in which they are located. Whether they’re decade-old staples or new additions specializing in mysteries and thrillers or romance, stores often report similar challenges. — tight profit margins, an unstable customer base and competition from the low prices of Amazon and big box stores.

However, the industry as a whole, once seen as on the brink of collapse, has largely rebounded after the COVID-19 pandemic, with hundreds of new members in the American Booksellers Association. That resurgence was on full display last Saturday, when thousands of book lovers traveled through Chicago — in cars, buses and, in at least one case, a limousine — to shop on Independent Bookstore Day.

For Rebecca George, one of the organizers of the Chicagoland Bookstore Crawl and co-owner of Volumes Bookcafe in Wicker Park, the best part of running a bookstore is connecting with neighbors — people she might never have met otherwise.

“We saw people we know; they get married, have kids, suffer loss, all those things become part of your everyday life and really part of an extended family,” she said.

But the industry, she said, is a “constant gamble.” Sometimes a lot of people buy a book — like “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us” by Hanif Abdurraqib, which George said sold about 200 copies in a year — but sometimes they don’t. Tastes can also change unexpectedly or based on news events — political books are sometimes in fashion, while today, people tend to gravitate toward escapism in fantasy, she said.

George worries about a drop in sales when a Barnes & Noble opens in the neighborhood later this year, meaning the popular shopping days help them “build up before summer.”

While Naperville hasn’t boasted any vampire dungeons (at least in recent history), it’s home to a thriving independent bookstore — one whose owner said she wasn’t upset when the downtown Naperville Barnes & Noble closed earlier this year. Becky Anderson, fifth-generation owner of Anderson’s Bookshop, said she’s already seen an increase in sales.

When Anderson’s was founded in 1875, it was a combination drugstore and bookstore — old ads called it a “druggist and bookseller,” she said. A lot has changed in nearly 150 years, Anderson said. The store has benefited from population growth in Naperville and the Chicago suburbs, but has also had to deal with massive competition from stores like Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

Visiting a brick-and-mortar bookstore is generally the best way to get referrals and attend literary events, Anderson said, but it also brings money into the local economy.

“We’re local, and when you benefit locally, it makes all the difference in the world,” Anderson said. “If you put your money where your heart is, and that’s home, that’s the independence of your communities.”