Bookends & Beginnings may be somewhat hidden in the downtown alley between Sherman and Benson streets but it recently made a difference a world away near the lower Rio Grande. Jeff Garrett, who along with his wife Nina opened the independent bookstore in 2014, traveled to Harlingen, Texas, to donate and distribute children’s books for refugees along the southern border. This was part of an effort to make sure that every child entering the U.S. receives a book and a backpack. Given their usually arduous journeys, these gifts are often among the very few possessions they can truly call their own.
Mr. Garrett recently described the trip as part of Evanston Library’s literary salon. The books were distributed to Border Patrol posts via Catholic Charities, and then also to detention centers, where unaccompanied children may spend as much as a month or two. “Although people seeking asylum come from many countries, currently most are from Central America whose societies are having terrible problems,” Mr. Garrett said.
The trip was organized by “Reforma,” a national association promoting library services for Spanish speakers, and the International Board on Books for Young People. The bookstore reflects Mr. Garrett’s experience with children’s books, which includes stints at the International Youth Library in Munich and the special collections archives at Northwestern. In a tucked-away section of the bookstore, one finds nicely illustrated children’s books in 25 languages from Arabic to Welsh, Armenian to Flemish, Korean to Portuguese. Titles also include stories in rare dialects like Mayan and Miskito that are still spoken in certain parts of Nicaragua.
Mr. Garrett said quality children’s books involve original stories expressed in well-crafted, non-formulaic prose and are illustrated in ways that are fresh and expressive. “The truly outstanding ones,” he said, “can cross borders and build bridges between the children of different countries and cultures.” Foreign picture books in languages other than Spanish and Chinese can be hard to find in the United States. However, his worldwide contacts enable him to get books that might only have been on display and sell them at reasonable prices.
The store has the feel of a large and cavernous private study, its back area offering tables for patrons who wish to sift through a few possibilities to find just the right book. For those who remember its predecessor, Bookman’s Alley, the new incarnation is both larger and more comfortable. Both owners are longtime lovers of the written word, know the books they sell and are glad to offer themselves as guides to the considerable array of choices.
Co-owner Nina Garrett continues to jointly manage the shop and use her credentials as a professional chef and journalist to make an impact on the local food reporting scene. She recently produced a podcast for WBEZ where she introduced many of the best cookbooks of 2015.
When the couple were researching where they might open an independent bookstore, they strongly felt that Evanston would be an ideal place to locate. Evanston has twice the national average of people with bachelors’ degrees, a major university and a lively cultural scene.
Being concealed from the thoroughfare offers advantages and disadvantages. Garrett said there was a certain “curve of discovery,” being situated in the alley but that its inconspicuousness gave it a kind of cachet. He said that he had seen the place referred to as a “speakeasy for books,” and while there is no secret password for entry, there exists the allure of a locale not everyone knows about.
By 2014, the time was ripe for such a venture. Independent bookstores were making a comeback in the new century, after years of being decimated by national chains. The competition between Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders caused the latter to become more focused on proven sellers and outright blockbusters. This reopened the niche for independents, which are able to stock books that have not yet garnered a huge audience, but that may be critically acclaimed and make a larger impact on the literary scene.
Such “midlist” titles are a favorite at Bookends & Beginnings and are an example of its curated selection, where excellence trumps profit margins. Mr. Garrett said that especially in such a digital age, many people still want to be able to leaf through books, examine their “heft and texture,” when assessing whether to purchase them. They want someone with the time and expertise to offer advice, when browsing and not simply zeroing in on a popular title.
Books & Beginnings may be the only bookstore in Evanston that sells new, used and remaindered (unsold and returned) books in a range of prices that can go as low as a dollar. It carries the latest offerings from local authors like Rebecca Makkai, Christine Sneed, Peter Ferry, Renee Rosen, Özge Samanci, Stuart Dybek, Rebecca Dudley, and Richard Cahan.
All book purveyors seem to be in a battle with the “culture of distraction,” with devices providing opportunities for communication everywhere, and videos and icons displacing language at every turn. To combat this trend of fractured attention spans, Mr. Garrett spoke of highly entertaining books which could be “stepping stones” to more thoughtful and challenging ones. The rise of graphic novels appears to be partly serving this purpose, acting as a transition between visual and language imagery. He cited writers like Rick Riordan and Philip Pullman who seem to have mastered the recipe for providing young readers with fascinating adventures imbued with real substance.
Such books can be a gateway to the intrinsic virtues of reading, of immersion in a story, where all the Twitter messages, Instagram photographs and Youtube clips can wait. Perhaps those children seeking a new life at our border will be similarly transported and discover that kind of refuge.