Book Box | A Chicago Bookstore Crawl - Hindustan Times
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Book Box | A Chicago Bookstore Crawl

Mar 23, 2024 11:40 PM IST

From a river dyed green to the Obamas' romantic haunt, a walk through Chicago's literary life.

Dear Reader,

Exile in Bookville, Chicago(Author) PREMIUM
Exile in Bookville, Chicago(Author)

Two of my favourite books this year are set in Chicago.

The first is Wellness by Nathan Hill. It’s the story of Elizabeth and Jack, which is set in Wicker Park, a Chicago neighbourhood that is becoming gentrified. The second is a retelling of Little Women, set in Pilsen, a working-class neighbourhood of Chicago - Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano. Let’s go visit these two neighbourhoods, I decide.

But before that, a quick bookstore crawl.

I start with a hospital bookstore. Barbara’s Bookstore is a local bookstore chain and this branch is just a few blocks away from my hotel. Stepping outside, I am immediately buffeted by icy winds and I wrap my scarf and coat closer to me, as I walk down Huron Street to the Northwestern Memorial Hospital branch. I’ve found the curation of books in Barbara’s Bookstore different from the big chains with their bestsellers. Today, I am drawn to The Fox Wife, a historical fiction mystery story set in China, with a strikingly beautiful cover, finding myself judging the book by its cover and its title! Later I am glad I did because the book turns out to be an intriguing and absorbing tale.

Barbara’s Bookstore, Chicago(Author)
Barbara’s Bookstore, Chicago(Author)

When I step out and turn onto Michigan Avenue, the winds are even more bone-chilling, now that I am walking towards the river. I quicken my pace, eager to see a river dyed green. It’s a once-a-year sight that happens on St. Patrick's Day, as the Irish celebrate their patron saint, with a parade and by dyeing the river a shamrock green.

But before I get to the bridge, I back away from the freezing breeze and into After-words, a cosy independent Chicago bookstore, past a window display of books by Irish authors like Sally Rooney (Normal People) and Colum McCann (Let The Great World Spin).

Window display of Irish books at after-words Bookstore
Window display of Irish books at after-words Bookstore

I love that After-words has special shelves for local authors. In the store, I browse through the mystery section, finally settling on Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand, a thriller about a young woman who dresses like a boy, and stalks a murderer through a turn-of-the-century Chicago amusement park.

When I emerge, the wind has died down and the sun is blazing. On the dazzling green river, white cruise boats go by. If I ever visit Chicago in warmer weather, I will splurge on the Architecture Centre’s river cruise, it is such a fabulous way to see the city’s stunning skyscrapers. But for now, I content myself with walking past the buildings, reading their histories and visiting the Architecture Centre’s bookstore instead. It’s a tiny little section, almost lost between tourist souvenirs, mats, and hats. There are some excellent picture books and The Architecture of Suspense, a quirky book on the worlds built in Alfred Hitchcock’s films!

Chicago Architecture Centre
Chicago Architecture Centre

Further down Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile, I pass Chicago’s famous Art Institute and the American Writers Museum, which includes Emily Dickinson, whose life, by the way, you can follow on the atmospheric Apple TV series of the same name. Sadly, the Writer's Museum is closed today, so I walk on till I finally get to Exile in Bookville, a gorgeous independent bookstore on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building. You can spend hours here, drinking in the reviews by curators and bookstore owners, Kristin and Javier. There is a whole section on translations from around the world and one on art and music with titles like Last Night a DJ Saved My Life.

A few blocks away is Barnes and Noble. I stop by to look at the business books section and am sidetracked by How to Be Authentic by Skye Cleary, a book that examines friendship, love and marriage in the context of Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist philosophy and shows how women can be authentic in each. It is an intriguing premise.

Walking out, past the imposing Chicago Public Library, I find myself on Dearborn Street, home to a million office buildings, that include the law offices of Sidley Austin. Here are where two of my favourite memoirists met each other – Barack Obama was an intern at Sidley Austin where he met Michelle Robinson, who he was assigned to. I know the inside story from reading the Obamas' memoirs Becoming and A Promised Land, both in print and the audio versions (which are fabulously voiced by the Obamas themselves).

Dearborn Street where Barack met Michelle
Dearborn Street where Barack met Michelle

But my best bookstore moment comes later in the day, even if it is not in a bookstore at all. It’s at The Rookery, Chicago’s oldest skyscraper, designed by the dashing duo of Daniel Burnham and John Root, the father architects of Chicago. Burnham and Root are also heroes of a book you have to read - if you love historical stories, stories of builders or cities or even if you don’t! Devil in the White City is racy and amazingly well-written.

Coming back to the Rookery, as if two iconic architects were not enough for the beautiful building, it has the stunning aesthetic of yet another legendary Chicago architect – Frank Lloyd Wright, who strengthened the structure by adding touches like rich Moorish-inspired filigree in marble and gold as well.

The Frank Lloyd Trust Store at The Rookery, Chicago
The Frank Lloyd Trust Store at The Rookery, Chicago

Beyond the lobby is a beautiful store run by the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, it has chairs and lamps and other bric-a-brac designed by the great architect and beautiful books on buildings. Many are coffee table books, hardcover, expensive, and tough to carry back, but there is one that is as gorgeous – a five-dollar book that is slim and sumptuous and allows me to interact with it – a colouring book featuring buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, with beautiful pencil drawings and histories of the building. This is what I picked up – a clever little colouring book.

And on that colourful note, it’s a wrap for now. Until next week, happy reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at sonyasbookbox@gmail.com

Books referred to in this edition of Book Box

Wellness by Nathan Hill

Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano

The Fox Wife by Yangsze Choo

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand

The Architecture of Suspense by Christine Madrid French

How to Be Authentic by Skye Cleary

Becoming by Michelle Obama

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Famous Buildings of Frank Lloyd : A Coloring Book by Bruce LaFontaine

Bookstores featured in this edition of Book Box

Barbara’s Bookstore

After-Words Bookstore

Chicago Architecture Centre

Exile in Bookville

Barnes and Noble

Frank Lloyd Wright Wright Trust Shop

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