Bookends & Beginnings Struggles Against the Effects of the Pandemic and Amazon’s Giant Shadow

Bookends & Beginnings is tucked away in an alley on Sherman Avenue. Credit: Bookends & Beginnings

When Nina Barrett first visited Bookman’s Alley, the quaint downtown Evanston bookstore tucked away in an alley on Sherman Avenue, she never imagined she would write 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 old bookstore used as an ideal topic for writing a profile story for the class. A labor of love for longtime owner Roger Carlson, Bookman’s Alley had a unique aura that inspired it.

“It had this ‘you went back in time, like Harry Potter’ 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 a key setting in Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 bestselling novel. The Time Traveller’s Wife, later made into a film of the same name.

And even though Barrett’s career took her first from journalist to published author and then to culinary school, she never forgot Bookman’s. When the opportunity arose in 2013 to purchase 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 legacy by putting their own stamp on it.

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

“I wasn’t interested in being in the antique book business, but I knew how charming the space was, and I knew it would be the fabulous bookstore I had envisioned when I first arrived in Evanston,” said Barrett.

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

Faced with rampant competition from conglomerate bookstores, a worldwide trend of independent bookstore closures, a pandemic, and the evolving challenges of brick-and-mortar retail, Barrett fought tirelessly, constantly evolving his store to keep it alive and thriving.

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