Nina Barrett and Jeffrey Garrett’s new bookstore Bookends and Beginnings at 1712 Sherman Ave., Alley 1, has now been open for two months. It can safely be said it has lightened the heavy hearts of readers who mourned the closing of Evanston antiquarian icon and their predecessor in the building, Bookman’s Alley, owned and run by Roger Carlson for more than 30 years.
The couple has taken advantage of the City’s summer craft fairs and sidewalk sales to publicize Bookends’ beginning, and the effort has paid off. Evanston residents and visitors have come to browse and buy in such numbers that Ms. Barrett and Mr. Garrett have decided to keep the shop open seven days a week.
The new store has a character all its own, as do its multi-talented owners. The non-intrusive sales counter tucked in to the left of the entry, the colorful quilts and artwork on the walls and vibrant jewelry and stationery also for sale – and of course, the shelves and tables of books – greet one in a happy mix of colors and textures. The eye is drawn along the bookshelves and nooks to the main information station at the back of the store, where it will usually light on Ms. Barrett or Mr. Garrett. The children’s books section is in the large room to the left. Just a bit beyond that is a pair of rooms found during renovations that had been closed off during the building’s Bookman’s Alley days. A class or a meeting could be held in there nicely.
Books throughout the shop are arranged by categories that have evolved since the store opened. New books and old – newly released, remaindered, rereleased and used – are shelved together. A new edition may be shelved next to a used version and an out-of-print, annotated vintage edition.
What is important, say the owners, is that each customer come away with the right book.
The cooking section is constantly growing and changing. Ms. Barrett is a professionally trained chef (Cordon Bleu) as well as a food reporter (with a degree from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism) who has won two James Beard Awards (nominated three times) for her entertaining, informative show "Fear of Frying" on Chicago public radio station WBEZ. As a result of Ms. Barrett’s special interest (some might gently say "obsession"), while Bookends’ cooking section is extensive, Ms. Barrett recently referred to it as "still a work in progress."
A new development that has just brought Ms. Barrett’s cookery offerings much closer to her ideal is the donation by Art Mollenhauer of his late wife Ida’s pristine several-hundred-volume collection of notable cookbooks that includes two limited-edition books pertaining to elBulli, the Michelin three-star restaurant in Catalonia, Spain, that closed in 2011. Ms. Mollenhauer, a Kendall Cooking School graduate and Evanston caterer, worked out of Now We’re Cookin’, Evanston’s shared professional kitchen space, until her death this past April. Ms. Barrett says she was moved by Mr. Mollenhauer’s gift and his statement that he was sure Ida would have liked her collection to support an independent bookstore. Ms. Barrett says the bookstore will donate 10% of the collection’s proceeds to NorthShore University HealthSystem’s music therapy program.
An enormous bookcase in the children’s books room is one place in the store where new and used books are not combined. It holds a collection of low-priced used and remaindered books organized alphabetically by author. Mr. Garrett says this is so kids "can find the inexpensive books easily" – they can go directly to where they know they can buy something. Books there are priced as low as $1, and the selection includes acclaimed books no longer in print.
Another distinctive offering in children’s books at Bookends is a specialty of Mr. Garrett’s. An academic research librarian, he recently retired from the directorship of special collections and archives at Northwestern University Library. One of his foci there was world children’s literature. Mr. Garrett sat on the editorial advisory board for Bookbird, a journal of international children’s literature, for 15 years and headed the Hans Christian Andersen Award jury for three.
At Bookends and Beginnings, Mr. Garrett "curates" – the word both he and Ms. Barrett use to describe their selective, more-than-simply mercantile relationship with their books – a variety of kids’ books from all over the world in their original languages. Korean books and books from Brazil in Portuguese have been featured most recently, but there are books in Chinese, French, German and more, including an Iranian book in German translation.
"Kids don’t really believe these languages are spoken," says Mr. Garrett. "It’s a real conceptual breakthrough when kids understand that books [in other cultures and languages] are made for the same reason [as theirs]."
Opening a bookstore has been a dream of both Bookends proprietors for a long time, they say. Ms. Barrett, who along with her other accomplishments, is a published writer of three books and a teacher of creative writing with NU’s School of Continuing Studies, says she first thought about opening a bookstore 25 years ago. "The time has never been right until now," she says. And she says she feels it is important now.
"People have got out of the habit of going to browse. You have to explain what an independent bookstore is to people below a certain age. [This kind of environment is what is needed] to get people back in the habit of discovering books."
Ms. Barrett speaks of her and Mr. Garrett’s plans for Bookends and Beginnings as an Evanston "third place": a place outside of home and workplace or school that is necessary for broader, more creative and hence fuller social interaction (originally developed in Ray Oldenburg’s "The Great Good Place," 1989). She plans a "mini-university" with classes in the rediscovered back room.
The store is a comfortable yet stimulating environment for adults’ and kids’ classes, story times, book clubs and writers’ groups, speakers, book-signings and -readings, and more. Bookends’ "preferred" arrangement with Panera Bread right around the corner means that Panera is willing to bring coffee over or even to cater – and that bookstore patrons may dash over to use Panera’s washroom facilities.
Though the Evanston Public Library also describes itself as a "third place," Ms. Barrett says that because "the library has the mandate to serve the largest population," there "is an overlap, but there is definitely a difference" between what a library and an independent bookstore can provide for the community.
"We’re allowed to be personality-driven," she says. "We’re not in competition." In any case, she says, "the more places like [the library and Bookends] there are in a small place" like Evanston, "the more desirable it makes the place." And speaking to the difference in bookstores and libraries, she says, "People now are very eclectic in their book needs. Some books I’d rather borrow; some I’d rather own; some I’d just rather have on a[n electronic] device. A cookbook or a kids’ book – I’d want to own that."
Ms. Barrett and Mr. Garrett say they see their bookstore as "an opportunity to be part of the heart of Evanston." They speak in this regard especially of Evanston youth.
"Younger people are going to have to learn what the experience of buying books this way is," says Ms. Barrett. "This power of buying a little world – you never forget that."