When Nina Barrett first visited Bookman’s Alley, the quaint downtown Evanston bookstore tucked away in an alley off Sherman Avenue, she never imagined she’d be writing the store’s next chapter some 30 years later.
In fall 1985, Barrett, then a grad student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, saw the antique used bookstore as an ideal topic for a profile story to write for class. A labor of love for longtime owner Roger Carlson, Bookman’s Alley possessed a unique aura that inspired her.
“It had this ‘you’ve gone back in time, Harry Potter kind of feeling,’ and it was so atmospheric. So, of course, I wrote the story,” she said.
Years later, the same store would be enshrined in pop culture as a key setting in Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 bestselling novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, later made into a film of the same name.
And even as Barrett’s career would take her first from journalist to published author and then to culinary school, she never forgot Bookman’s. When Carlson retired in 2013 and the opportunity presented itself to take over the bookstore’s old space, she jumped at the chance to honor his store’s legacy while putting her own stamp on it.
“I was not interested in being in the antiquarian book business at all, but I knew how charming the space was, and I knew that it would make a fabulous bookstore that I had imagined when I first came to Evanston,” Barrett said.
Now dubbed Bookends & Beginnings, the bookstore’s creaky floorboards, vintage accessories and mystical feel make it a testament to the years passed. But it certainly isn’t stuck in the past, either.
Faced with outsized competition from conglomerate booksellers, a worldwide trend of independent bookshops shutting down, a pandemic and the evolving challenges of brick-and-mortar retail, Barrett has fought relentlessly to succeed.
She has been constantly evolving her woman-owned business to keep it alive and thriving. Her husband, Jeff Garrett, an expert in children’s books and special collections, helped out at her store for a few years but has returned to librarianship.
Marked by a plaque hammered into the side of a brick-walled building and a street sign pointing toward the almost-hidden-away alley entrance, Bookends’ secretive location at 1712 Sherman Ave. earned it the nickname of a “speakeasy” for books, as one Yelp review called it.
But with growing inventory, pandemic capacity restrictions and declining foot traffic, the bookstore could no longer afford having a concealed location.
So in January 2021, Barrett made her biggest change as Bookends expanded to a storefront location next to Saville Flowers at 1716 Sherman Ave., which now serves as a site for bestselling books, gifts and stationery.
“We are actually growing, and we need more space, but a lot of the motivation was just to have a foothold out on the main street where we’re visible,” Barrett said. “We absolutely are attracting a kind of walk-in customer that we wouldn’t really get here.”
Lotte Dunnell, 26, who has been working at Bookends for 2½ years, said she loves when passersby discover the store. “Every day, people come in and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t know you were here!’ And now that we have that storefront on the main Sherman strip, we’re getting that more and more,” said Dunnell, who lives in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood.
Barrett’s decision to enter the bookstore business wasn’t just born of nostalgia for her days at Northwestern, but years of experience in the business as both an author and a bookseller. After getting her master’s degree and becoming a mother, Barrett worked part-time at Women and Children First while writing books on the side. The 15 years she spent at the well-known feminist bookstore in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood taught her quite a bit about how to run a bookstore.
By the time she left in 2005, the future of local independent bookstores was grim. Giant chains like Barnes & Nobles, bolstered by the e-books boom, were driving smaller stores out of business. “I sometimes call it the massacre of the independent bookstores,” Barrett said.
That’s when her career pivoted. She went to culinary school, got a chef’s degree, and eventually did freelance food coverage for WBEZ, the NPR affiliate in Chicago.
But Barrett made her way back to books: She came across a collection of archives while working a public relations job at Northwestern’s main library that eventually turned into her fourth, and latest, book: The Leopold and Loeb Files: An Intimate Look at One of America’s Most Infamous Crimes.
And in 2013, when she heard Bookman’s Alley was closing, she stepped in to take over the space.
But all those years in the bookstore trenches couldn’t prepare her for what came next. The crippling effects of the pandemic brought many businesses to a standstill, and Bookends wasn’t unscathed. During the early business lockdowns, Barrett focused on fulfilling online orders, launched a GoFundMe COVID-19 relief fund drive that raised almost $50,000 and received a federal Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loan of $22,500.
The pandemic appears to be receding, but the existential threat from giant retailers still looms. Bookends outlasted a major competitor, Evanston’s Barnes & Noble store at 1630 Sherman Ave., just one block away. Though the giant bookseller permanently closed its doors in Evanston and in Skokie’s Old Orchard mall in 2020, Barrett still saw disparity between independent bookstores and publishing giants and decided to do something about it.
Last March, Barrett spearheaded lawsuit against Amazon and the five biggest book publishing companies that account for 80% of books sold across the country. The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, alleges these companies intentionally fix book prices and control book sales in ways that make it impossible for local booksellers to compete.
“People who have the passion for the business, who genuinely care about the business, are getting priced out of a leveled playing field because Amazon’s business practices are so unfair,” Barrett said.
An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on active litigation.
Barrett’s attorneys are waiting for a ruling to validate the lawsuit and move it forward. There are no public developments in the lawsuit yet, she said.
On March 2, Amazon announced it plans to close all 68 of its brick-and-mortar stores – many of which are bookstores. Its grocery and convenience stores will remain open.
Books are unique products in that they come with a price printed on them, which ensures that everyone along the production line gets paid fairly, Barrett said. “People think we’re asking them to pay more. We’re asking them to pay what the book is actually worth.”
Amazon has, in some ways, hurt Barnes & Noble worse than it hurt independent bookstores, Barrett said. While the product being sold, E-books aside, stays the same across the board, a one-stop-shop at Amazon usually means buying a book you already know you want.
“You’re going on Amazon to order it quickly and to find it for the cheapest price, and to just get it dumped on your doorstep without having to get out of your pajamas. That isn’t what we’re selling here,” Barrett said.
Waging this battle and beyond, Bookends is unlikely to go away any time soon. Between book launches, book clubs, speaker events and writing workshops, the store has become a hub for Evanston’s literary community. It regularly attracts everyone from nationally acclaimed Evanston-based authors to Northwestern faculty, students and alumni, and many others in the publishing industry who have some connection to the college town.
“That’s what a bookstore is supposed to do. It’s supposed to be like a focal point and a place that those conversations happen and a place where your literary community becomes visible because they are networked through the bookstore,” Barrett said.
At Bookends, some customers walk in with a specific author in mind for their purchase and leave trying to balance a whole stack of new titles in their arms. Others get lost browsing through shelves, reading back-cover blurbs and handwritten recommendations, called “shelf-talkers.”
Antonia Mufarech, 21, is a Bookends regular. “I just love how welcoming and cozy it is, and I love the little notes. I always read those. Being able to physically see the books and flip through the pages is something I love. It’s very beautiful, and it’s not very common nowadays,” Mufarech said, adding that she doesn’t like ordering books online.
For some, it’s all about catching that woody smell of old books you can’t get anywhere else. “Students tell us all the time that they just feel so stressed out at school, and they’ll just come in and they feel safe here,” Barrett said. “It’s like a happy place for a lot of people.”
This story has updated to correct the spelling of Jeff Garrett’s name, the depiction of the ownership of the business, the account of how Bookends & Beginnings was established and the description of Nina Barrett’s work for WBEZ.