HP’s independent bookstores defy trend, still supported by a vibrant community

Jeff Deutsch, general manager of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, speaks during the panel discussion: “Hyde Park’s Independent Booksellers: Use Them or Lose Them,” presented by The Hyde Park Historical Society.  (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

Staff writer

Long-time independent bookstores in Hyde Park are still thriving despite the challenges posed by Amazon in the market and the long-expected threat of print books becoming obsolete.

On Sept. 21, the Hyde Park Historical Society hosted an event called “Hyde Park Independent Booksellers: Use Them or Lose Them” at 57th Street Wines, 1448 E. 57th St. —  once the home of the O’Gara & Wilson Bookstore, one of the oldest bookstores in Chicago.

The panel consisted of Jeff Deutsch, current General Manager of Seminary Co-op Bookstores; Jack Cella, past general manager of Seminary Co-op Bookstores; Brad Jones, managing co-owner of Powell’s books; Doug Wilson, owner of O’Gara & Wilson. The panel was moderated by Mary Rowles, a publisher’s consultant and representative.

The conversation started with a brief history of each bookstore and how each bookseller got into the business. O’Gara & Wilson was established in 1882 and focuses on collecting rare, out-of-print books. Wilson loved to collect books but did not imagine that he would become a bookseller until Joseph O’Gara offered him an opportunity to be an apprentice.

Wilson took the opportunity saying, “I didn’t even know what that was, but it sounded like it involved being in a bookstore a lot of the time, which sounded good.” After being an apprentice for 5 years, he was brought onto the business and has been for over 40 years. The bookstore is currently in Chesterton, Indiana, where he and his wife run the store.

When asked how online bookselling and services have changed the bookstore, Jones responded, “Everyone told me 15 years ago that ‘the book is dead; it’s all going to be electronic.’ That hasn’t happened. The fear of 15 years ago, I think has gone away or changed. There has been an ongoing change of what we’re fearful of. What has happened on each of these things is we keep finding a different equilibrium that different places find their way, right now it is a smaller way.”

Deutsch asked Cella how the internet changed the mail-order books. In the past, the Seminary Co-Op Bookstores mailed book all around the nation, but, once Amazon became competition, it changed.

“I began seeing these full-page ads in the New York Times Book Review for Amazon. They were promising these quick turnarounds. I was like, ‘There is no way a publisher can get a book out that quickly, but they found a way. Within a year, sales had fallen off 25 to 30% that one year, Cella said.

Asked how Hyde Park can keep the thriving independent bookstores flourishing the future, Cella responded, “I think the only way is to patronize local bookstores. There has been a growth in independent bookstores around the country, but the real question is, ‘Are people going to buy enough from them to keep them going?’ I don’t think anybody knows the answer to that.”

When an audience member asked how bookstores can influence scholarship, Deustch said,  “Creating a culture of reading, books and supporting spaces with books nationally is critical. In this neighborhood, there is a model of what it means to live in a world surrounded by books and where people are buying them, reading them and talking about them. That is one of the things that is great about this neighborhood and it’s something the country needs.”