June 26, 2013
Chicago’s oldest used bookstore to close and relocate
by Claire Kelley
The Hyde Park neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago is mourning the announced closing of the city’s oldest used bookstore. O’Gara and Wilson Antiquarian Booksellers traces its history back to 1882, when it was named Woodworth’s and was known as a place where professors and students bought their books. A seasoned Chicago bookseller named Joseph O’Gara bought the Hyde Park store in its current location and ran it with his cat Lady Jane Grey for many years, training the current owner Doug Wilson by putting through “rigorous five-year apprenticeship before making him a partner in the bookshop.”
Today, Wilson has been trying to cut costs to stay afloat, but in the economic climate and with prices rising in Hyde Park—not to mention the “volatility of the online book markets”— he has decided to close the bookstore and reopen it in Chesterton, Indiana where he says taxes and rents are cheaper.
“When Joe [O’Gara] died in 2005, he sadly became aware that I was going to have challenges he never had,” Wilson said. “If he had survived the Depression, he figured I could survive this.”
Wilson will take with him memories of famous and eccentric patrons that the bookstore has had over the years, including Saul Bellow (“He was always incredibly kind and friendly to me and the shop” ) and Leon Despres, the civil rights advocate who was known as the “liberal conscience of Chicago.” Despres’ son donated a portion of his library to the bookstore and Wilson says “there would be people who would want to buy his books because it had his names and notes in it.”
And its not just people who frequent the store that make it special—there’s also the place itself. A blog post of a visitor describes the atmophere:
This store wins the prize for oddest decor. Immediately apparent is the buffalo head hanging over the center aisle. Further back is a stuffed monk. It’s a little creepy, but in an inviting way. I was immediately drawn into the back of the store to figure out if the statute was a witch, a monk, made out of wax or wood, was it holiday decor or permanent? The clerk explained that when the Museum of Science and Industry was refurbished, the inscribing monk didn’t make the cut and was headed for the trash heap. In swooped the owner to save the monk and give him a second life as guardian of the stacks.
Doug Wilson started packing up the store last week. His car was loaded with books, and the monk/scribe sat in the passenger seat of the car. In a post online, he announced that the spirit of this particular bookstore will live on in Indiana: “It’s a wonderful, historic community that has hosted an O’Gara & Wilson bookstore in the past and we’re looking forward to setting up shop there again.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that O’Gara and Wilson had “closed its doors for the last time.” This is not the case—the bookstore will remain open until late July. So, if you’re in Chicago for ALA, head over to O’Gara and Wilson and pick up some great books! Also, in an email to MobyLives, Doug Wilson’s wife Jill stressed that, while rent was a factor in the bookstore’s decision to move, their landlord has been “exceptionally kind.”
Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.