Friday, August 30, 2019

A visit to the Newberry Library in Chicago, with a side trip to Unabridged Bookstore

It started with an anniversary party. Lisa from Books & Company and I went down to our sales rep Jenny's 20th anniversary party. Before she sold us HarperCollins Books for Young Readers out of New York, she'd worked at several of the great bookstores in Chicago. And so we got to see a few of Chicago book people, and that sort of inspired me for a day with my sister Merrill* when she visited earlier in August.

I spent time chatting with Jenny's friend Melinda, who works at the Newberry Library book store. As these things go, I spoke to her more in Chicago than when she lived in Milwaukee. The last time I had visited the Newberry, it was being run by Seminary Coop, and I had said hello to another former old friend, Laura. Now the library is running the store directly.

I was intrigued. So when our Chicago walk began and took us within blocks of the library, I realized that I had never seen anything other than the bookstore and the first floor exhibit space. We arrived and the tour was just beginning (and that was providence, as there are only two per week). We were encouraged to jump in and we did. Stephanie was our charming and knowledgeable guide, who offered a compact history as we toured the floors.

While I would have loved to see the restoration rooms up close and was itching to explore the ten-story stacks, those spaces are reserved for trained professionals. Still, they have a non-updated-but-still-functioning card catalog, perfect if I want to go back to my never-started department store book. Unlike most private libraries, anyone can join and the membership is free. It's not a circulating library, but Newberry Fellows can hold books at their research desks.

I'm sure the internet has changed the way the library is used, but I think it's so important to have these books available, especially with most other libraries purging their physical books for digital equivalents. It brought back memories of my research papers, and all the libraries I used. My mother and I would browse about eight different branches of the Queens (then Queensboro) system, but for research, Jamaica was best.  I still have this weird memory of tagging along with my other sister Claudia while she researched a paper on Isadora Duncan.  In high school, the program I was in gave us access to the library at St. John's University - I think the neighborhood is called Hillcrest, but more importantly, it was on the Q75 bus that started near our house.

The Newberry has a lot of specialty collections, containing works that are not digitized, including maps, indigenous studies, and performing arts. It's very popular for genealogy work. Our group had a lot of questions, but I kept my mouth shut when one attendee connected the library to the esteemed Newbery Medal, as that Newbery was some relative of theirs. Alas, that Newbery is spelled differently from the Library, so their enthusiasm for the tour from a genetic-relation viewpoint was a bit misplaced.

In the bookstore, I was taken by a shelf labeled Curios. I like that. It was a bit of a potpourri category - not dried flowers, but the Jeopardy connotation, a nice one for a miscellany-lover like myself. As a last note about the Newberry, Stephanie highly recommends their annual book sale in July.

The bookstore got me hungry for more book shopping, so I brought Merrill over to Unabridged Bookstore in Lakeview and we did a whole mess of browsing. I did some research for my book-club discussion of Call Me Zebra (Ed's shelf-talker was, as they often are there, packed with detail) and bought The Incendiaries**, our November title. I suggested we visit their basement for the best travel section in Chicago (and probably better than many other cities), which she bought a guide for Melbourne.

One last thing for book lovers. On the way down while waiting for the Hiawatha, Merrill and I ran into one of our regulars, Mary Beth, who was visiting family. We discussed bookstores, and what do you know, we ran into her again at Unabridged, along with her daughter.

What a great and bookish day we had in Chicago***! And since you asked, I was reading the appropriately Chicago-ish Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright (register for our event on October 21 here) while Merrill read J. Ryan Stradal's The Lager Queen of Minnesota. Back at the store, I asked Merrill to try to hand-sell a copy of Vintage 1954 (which we both loved) while I was working. But that's for a different post.

*Famous for calling the novels of Anita Brookner "breezy." She's currently rereading all of them.

**Particularly appropriate because our PRH Penguin rep formerly worked at Unabridged.

***It was about an eight mile walk, including detours. We took the brown line back to the Loop.

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