Set designer Jack Magaw peers into the model of a stage set that he is working on in his second story Sherman Avenue studio. 

A recently withdrawn development proposal, called for demolition of about half the buildings along the west side of the 1700 block of Sherman Avenue. On, Above and Behind Sherman Avenue, a series of profiles, gives our readers the opportunity to learn more about the people and businesses that would have been displaced, and the buildings that would have disappeared.

Bookends and Beginnings, 1712 Sherman Ave.

“Bookselling is a peculiar business,” said Nina Barrett, sitting near the fiction section in her bookstore, Bookends and Beginnings, which is located behind Sherman Avenue in Bookman’s Alley. “We sell stories, not stuff – and even though we work with books all day, we still read books late at night, until we conk out.”

Ms. Barrett said that she handpicks all the books, though she said that as she gets to know the interests and backgrounds of staff members, they do it more and more. “Also, our customers tell us about important books,” said Ms. Barrett. “Because of the University [Northwestern] we tend to get a literary and extra-scholarly crowd here. We have a lot in common with Hyde Park bookstores, more so than other stores in the Chicago area.”

Over the last couple of decades several bookstores have come and gone from the 1700 block of Sherman Avenue, including Krochs and Brentano’s, Borders and Bookman’s Alley, the famous and beloved bookstore owned and operated for many years by Roger Carlson. Bookends and Beginnings is housed in much of what was Bookman’s Alley, which Ms. Barrett said “was Potter-esque way before we knew about Harry Potter.” She said people still come in, partly because Bookman’s Alley makes an appearance in the the book “Time Traveler’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger. “We wanted to keep the vibe that was here, and we wanted you to feel like you’re in somebody’s living room.”

Talking about the building that houses the bookstore, Ms. Barrett said she sees real value in keeping historic spaces, like Bookman’s Alley. “In Europe, you go to bookstores in the old towns, but the chain bookstores have saturated America. There’s no humanity in it.”

Years before she opened Bookends and Beginnings, she had thought that one of the buildings in the alley and the courtyard space could be a restaurant. “I thought about how beautiful it could be . . . with open windows, the big tree that’s here – and you’d hear the birds.” A restaurant would also have been a natural choice for Ms. Barrett, who earned a professional chef degree in 2007 and won two James Beard Foundation Awards for her six-part series called “Fear of Frying,” which was broadcast on National Public Radio affiliate WBEZ in Chicago.

Ms. Barrett attended graduate school at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and has had her work published in a number of publications, including the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation. She has also just written her third book, “The Leopold and Loeb Files,” which retells the story of University of Chicago students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb who committed murder in 1924 – but using original sources to examine an unsolved mystery in a way that has not been done before. The book will be published in July and readers will be able to purchase a copy at Bookends and Beginnings.

Jack Magaw Design, 1712 Sherman Ave.

Jack Magaw, who designs stage sets for theater productions in Chicago and around the nation, said he comes to his studio every day, even on the weekends. He has also had studios in Chicago and in downtown Evanston’s Hahn Building but said he feels most at home in what he called the “enclave of designers, under the radar” on the 1700 block of Sherman Avenue. “I spend a lot of time here,” he said, gesturing around his one-room studio space, which includes work tables where he designs and assembles set models from foamcore and museum board, and a wall lined from floor to ceiling with models he has built over the years.

He said that he knows his neighbors along the block, and the “UPS guy, Bobby, who I see on the street and talk with. It wasn’t like that in Chicago.” Mr. Magaw said, “There’s a real value for me in encountering familiar faces and stopping to talk. We hide behind technology so much, not really talking with people. [The downtown] is going to be even better when Fountain Square is reconfigured.”

Talking about the building that houses his studio, he said, “You know, these are the original windows and it can get cold in here, but it’s kind of artsy romantic, like in La Bohème.” A few years ago, when he was looking for his telecommunications connection, he explored the building’s basement a bit and found some pallets of crates that contained old cans and boxes of crackers he thinks were rations for emergencies during wartime. “There was a story there,” he said, “My job is to shape space to help tell stories on stage, so I was interested.”

Mr. Magaw said he can see beautiful sunsets from the windows that fill most of the studio’s exterior wall. “I can open these windows,” he said, “You know, you can’t do that in a lot of places. I like hearing the world out there as I’m working.”

Speaking a bit more about his work, he said he works four to six months at a time on a show – from beginning the work right through the time it opens. Every year, he works on 10 to 12 shows that overlap to some degree; about half of his work is in Chicago and the other half out of town.

“I’m off to D.C. on Monday for the first meeting for a play that is beginning production,” he said. “The big challenge on that one is sizing the set so that it will fit multiple theaters as the play travels to different cities.” Mr. Magaw said he is always on location at the theaters for about 10 days near the end of production, as dress rehearsals begin.

When he is not designing, in production or onsite at theaters, he teaches scene design, model building and portfolio presentation at DePaul University, where he has been an adjunct faculty member for 17 years.

Ned Schaub

Ned Schaub is a feature story writer for the RoundTable. He has served as reporter, content developer and communications manager across his career in the field of nonprofit communications. Ned studied...