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Profiles Tue Jul 05 2011

Bookstore Profile: Powell's Bookstores, Chicago

Name: Powell's Bookstore
Locations: 2850 N. Lincoln Ave (North)
1501 E. 57th St (Hyde Park)
Founder: Michael Powell
Books: Rare and used/discounted (every genre)
History: Opened in 1970

Powell's Bookstores has two retail locations (as well as a wholesale division that sells university press leftovers to other bookstores) in the Chicago area. Kimberly Sutton, employee at the Hyde Park location, gave some great responses about the inception of Powell's! (Photos are of Powell's North.)

When did Powell's Bookstore open, and how did it start, i.e., what was the motivation/inspiration for its founding?
Powell's was founded in 1970 by Michael Powell, who had been running a student co-op bookstore on the University of Chicago campus. Michael was a grad student really into books--so much that he convinced Saul Bellow, Edward Shils, and Morris Janowitz (among others) to front him the money for a much needed bookstore in Hyde Park. This is slightly unrelated to Powell's, but I love this story so I beg you to indulge me -- the building in Hyde Park (where Powell's still lives) housed a real estate agency until earlier in the year, when it was fire-bombed (!), probably by student radicals (the case is still unsolved), though they were notorious slum lords, and a tenants union had formed against them as well. A few days later someone spray painted, "You don't need a weatherman to know that the fire is blowing in the right direction." Sounds like the perfect spot for a bookstore to me.

We did really well and kept expanding -- we used to share this space with O' Gara & Wilson's (now across the street), bought a warehouse in the mid-70s (it's since moved a few times, now out by Midway), and bought the north store in 1987.

Your specialization is rare and used/discounted books. Where does your selection come from? How do you get your books?
We buy books from many different places -- remainders, overstock, and hurt books directly from publishers and wholesalers, and books from people on the street who bring them in to sell. We buy and sell at many book fairs across the country and internationally, and started the very first remainder/overstock trade show. We also occasionally make house calls -- we went to Boston for a Harvard professor's collection and love to brave cat ladies' and other crazy recluse's lairs for good books.

Do you have a favorite section or genre of books in your store?
We have incredibly strong stock in Ancient/Classical Studies and Medieval History, Philosophy, and books on Chicago. Lately though we've been building a great collection of art and photography books, especially in Outsider Art, Street Art and early photography.

Powell's North used to have a reading series - why was it canceled? Any thoughts of bringing it back?
The most recent incarnation of the reading series was being curated by someone at the Art Institute who has since left. We are always dreaming of restarting some sort of reading or even concert series, but there always seems to be too many things to do selling and buying books.

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