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Stores Mon May 18 2015

New Chapters for Old Bookstores

By Tim Rolph

"Robert Plant's band was just in here, hung out and played records for about an hour." Ric Addy, owner of Uptown's Shake Rattle & Read bookstore, pulls out his phone to show me a picture. "That's Florence from Florence and the Machine. She gave me some tickets, and on stage was talking about 'the quaint little bookstore across the street.'"

A block from both the Riviera and Aragon Ballroom, Shake Rattle & Read is a regular stop for bands on tour, the bassists and drummers mingling with unsuspecting fans a few hours before shows, loading up on ways to keep busy on the bus. "When Oprah'd have supermodels on her show, she would come in here and buy their old magazine covers." If the shop, decked out in concert posters, old vinyl, and lit paraphernalia, looks like the store from the movie High Fidelity, it's probably because the film sourced a lot of the set from here.

shake rattle and readShake Rattle & Read is one of a disappearing breed. Myopic, Bookworks, Bookleggers, the Book Gallery, Bookman's Corner — they dot the city like literary anchors, all well-established and owned by an older generation, opened before "e-books" was a term. They're not disappearing yet, but they're part of an old guard, elements of a 20th century community, my favorite spots on the neighborhood landscape that, in a few years, might leave and take an important part of the culture with them. Will an entire type of cultural exchange be lost — the topography of neighborhood commerce altered, our recommendations and sources for media limited to faceless internet transactions?

Addy's an old rocker and a staple at shows around town — his band is playing at Uptown Nights and the Uptown Rib Festival this year, and he's a director of the Uptown Chamber of Commerce, invested in the blocks surrounding his store. "In 1966, my sister and her husband opened The Book Box, with just boxes of books on the floor. Then my brother-in-law and his friend built these shelves." Addy gestures to what can be glimpsed of the wood beneath theyellowed books and magazine back-issues, tracks from the first side of Abbey Road humming beneath his explanation. They're the same shelves where I found Vonnegut and Montaigne, bought collections by Denis Johnson and Donald Barthelme, books I didn't know I needed much less looked for, stopping by for a quick one after class the way a boozehound does for bourbon. Addy bought the store from his sister in the early '80s, bringing his background as a record dealer, a new name, and a love of pop culture.

To feed a muse, wrote Ray Bradbury, "You must still take long walks at night around your city or town, or walks in the country by day. And long walks, at any time, through bookstores and libraries." A walk through a bookstore in your city? Perfect. The thrill of discovering a new author, a new album, is nowhere better than in a store, stumbling through sections you wouldn't know to look for on Amazon, much less be referred to by the algorithm trying to understand you. There is a specific pleasure in walking a few blocks from your home and rifling through stacks and shelves, something possible at Shake Rattle & Read, at Facets and Odd Obsession, at Record Breakers and Reckless, local cultural depositories open to anyone with time. They are resources open to anyone with interest.

To those born in the past 20 years, the media landscape is mostly limited by what's available to be streamed on Netflix, purchased from iTunes, bought for Kindle — artificial cultural boundaries set by complex rights-distribution agreements, excluding much available art — those confined to iTunes would have, until recently, have missed out on The Beatles. If it's not digital, it's not accessible. The choices are thinner, the chance for surprise less likely — the immersion and interaction of a brick and mortar store, like so much else, replaced by a screen that mediates and limits choice.

Such trends in consumption can't help but affect the makeup of the street's neighborhood businesses. A neighborhood is the sum of its parts — the people and shops and streets packed together within it, the opportunities for experience available inside its boundaries, the chances for chatting with its residents, eating at its diners, and browsing its shops. Booksellers have been a cultural constant, from Athenian scribes and Medieval copyists onward, and a real estate category of cultural interaction now sits at a crossroads, waiting out purchase trends. What and how we buy shapes our community. Look for a cobbler or a haberdasher or even a pay phone. I watched, as an employee, both Blockbuster and Borders sink, Walgreens and dentists crawling into their empty storefronts, flattening the range of possible local commerce. Across from Shake Rattle & Read sits an ornate, wedge-shaped two-story building, once a Goldblatt's, later a Borders, now empty for over three years. Will used bookstores ever disappear completely, relegated to set-pieces as fictional shorthand for an older age? The smell of damp-dry pages and slack binding glue kept to novelty scented candles burned at doctoral candidate housewarmings.

I've mostly switched to digital. Minimalism meets consumerism — I can have it without having to have it, a simultaneous ingesting and owning of cake. A better case can often be made for digital content — it's an all but inevitable step in mediation, with consequences for community. Hopefully, a city of Chicago's size will be able to support what will soon be labeled "specialty retail," a last bastion for the eccentrics that want recommendations from stalwarts like Addy.

"I don't have kids, so we don't know what's going to happen when I leave." Beneath Addy's floor run underground tunnels that link the block, from the dressing rooms of the historic Uptown Theater to rooms where Al Capone's goons used to play cards under the Green Mill jazz club. Uptown has a lot of of history, and Shake Rattle & Read is nestled proudly amongst it, bearing forward long-honored traditions. Addy switches records before walking me out of the store. "Don't take it too seriously, too academic. It's good to mix rock and roll with books."

~*~

Tim Rolph grew up next door to O'Hare and let The Music Box convince him Chicago was worth moving to. A film school grad, he spends his afternoons editing documentaries and his nights hunting down large portions of Mexican food, which can be great without being good.

Photo by Anthony Auston.

 
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alan lake / May 18, 2015 5:56 PM

1st met Ric around 1979. We played a gig in the infamous tunnel mentioned in the story as 101 string massacre. He'd found a record of an orchestra playing Stones tunes. We played it through the p.a. and played over it, decades before backing tracks.

Left town for 20 yrs and upon each visit home, would go to the store to see my friend, soak up the vibe, and smell the books.

A jewel of the city that warrants support from any and all- I'd be highly suspect of anyone that couldn't find @ least a few things you didn't know you needed.

Bobby / May 20, 2015 8:35 AM

Great article,always loved this store,trully an icon of the neighborhood.Play on Paddy play on!

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