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.
“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.
Marked by a plaque hammered into the side of a brick-walled building and a street sign pointing to the almost hidden alley entrance, Bookends’ secret location on Sherman Ave. 1712 earned the nickname “speakeasy” for books, as a Yelp review called it.
But with growing inventory, pandemic capacity restrictions, and declining foot traffic, the bookstore could no longer have a hidden location.
Then, in January 2021, Barrett made his biggest move when Bookends expanded into a store near Saville Flowers at 1716 Sherman Ave., which now serves as a website for bestselling books, gifts and stationery.
“We’re actually growing and we need more space, but a big part of the motivation was just having a foothold on the main street where we’re visible,” Barrett said. “We are absolutely attracting a type of customer that we would not be able to get here.”
Lotte Dunnell, 26, who has worked at Bookends for two and a half years, said she loves it when passersby discover the store. “Every day, people come in and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know you were here!’ And now that we have this store on Sherman’s main strip, we’re getting that more and more,” said Dunnell, who lives in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood.
Barrett’s decision to buy the bookstore was not just born out of nostalgia for her days at Northwestern, but out of years of experience in the business as an author and bookseller. After earning her Masters and becoming a mother, Barrett worked part-time at Women and Children First while writing books on the side. The 15 years she spent at the well-known feminist bookstore in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood taught her a lot about how to run a bookstore.
When it came out in 2005, the future for local independent bookstores was bleak. Giant chains like Barnes & Nobles, fueled by the e-book boom, were pushing smaller stores out of business. “I sometimes call it the massacre of independent bookstores,” Barrett said.
That’s when his career took a turn. She went to culinary school, earned a chef’s degree, and eventually became a food reporter for WBEZ, NPR’s Chicago affiliate.
But Barrett went back to books: she came across a collection of archives while working on a public relations job at Northwestern’s flagship library that ended up becoming 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 that Bookman’s Alley was closing, she intervened.
But all those years in the bookstore trenches couldn’t prepare her for what was to come. The crippling effects of the pandemic have crippled many businesses, and Bookends was not unscathed. During the early business lockdowns, Barrett focused on fulfilling online orders, launched a GoFundMe COVID-19 relief fund that raised nearly $50,000, and received a $22,500 forgivable Federal Payment Protection Program loan.
The pandemic appears to be receding, but the existential threat from giant retailers still looms. Bookends outlived a major competitor, Evanston’s Barnes & Noble store at 1630 Sherman Ave., just a block away. Although the giant bookstore permanently closed its doors in Evanston and Skokie’s Old Orchard mall in 2020, Barrett still saw the disparity between independent bookstores and publishing giants and decided to do something about it.
Last March, Barrett led a lawsuit against Amazon and the top five book publishers that account for 80% of books sold nationwide. The suit, which seeks class-action status, alleges that these companies intentionally set book prices and control book sales in ways that make local booksellers impossible to compete.
“People who are passionate about the business, who genuinely care about the business, are being priced on a level playing field because Amazon’s business practices are so unfair,” Barrett said.
An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on active litigation.
Barrett’s lawyers are awaiting a decision to validate the lawsuit and move it forward. There are no public developments in the process yet, she said.
On March 2, Amazon announced that it plans to close all 68 of its physical stores – many of which are bookstores. Your grocery stores and convenience stores will remain open.
Books are unique products in that they come with a price printed on them, which ensures that everyone along the production line is paid fairly, Barrett said. “People think we are asking them to pay more. We are asking them to pay what the book is really 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 in every way, a one-stop shop on Amazon often means buying a book you already know you want.
“You go to Amazon to order it quickly and find it for the cheapest price, and just dump it at your door without having to take your pajamas off. That’s not what we’re selling here,” Barrett said.
Waging this battle and beyond, Bookends is unlikely to disappear 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 authors to Northwestern faculty, students and alumni, and many others in the publishing industry who have some connection to the college town.
“That’s what a bookstore should do. It should be like a focal point and a place where those conversations take place and a place where your literary community becomes visible because they are networked through the bookstore,” said Barrett.
At Bookends, some customers come in with a specific author in mind for the purchase and leave trying to balance a whole pile of new titles in their arms. Others get lost browsing the shelves, reading back cover synopses and handwritten recommendations, called “shelf talkers”.
Antonia Mufarech, 21, is a regular at Bookends. “I just love how cozy and cozy it is, and I love the little notes. I always read these. Being able to physically see the books and flip through the pages is something I love. It’s very beautiful and not very common these days,” Mufarech said, adding that she doesn’t like to order books online.
For some, it’s about getting that woodsy smell from old books you can’t find anywhere else. “Students tell us all the time that they feel so stressed at school, and they just come in and feel safe here,” said Barrett. “It’s like a happy place for a lot of people.”