In order to survive the pandemic, one of Chicago’s independent bookstores gets creative.
Throughout the past year, numerous independently owned businesses in Chicago have struggled to make ends meet. The pandemic has limited foot traffic and in-person events significantly, something many independent shops rely on. Due to the lack of in-person browsing for months on end, many patrons have shifted to larger book suppliers to deliver their items, something that independent stores have struggled with. Over the past fall, many bookstores participated in an online movement #BoxedOut to bring awareness to this increase in competition from larger corporations. Despite these hardships, local bookstores are finding a way to make it through this pandemic. Local independent bookstore Uncharted Books is persevering while staying involved in their community.
Uncharted Books is an independent bookstore located in Andersonville. Since its opening in 2012, Uncharted Books has prided itself on being a “pro-loitering bookstore” whose many selections include rare finds.
“Community is really crucial to us, and informs all of our decisions as a business,” says Uncharted Books’ manager Francis Ganson.
“We're specifically a leftist bookstore,” says Ganson, “so we try and really honor that as much as we can under capitalism by sharing as many local resources as we can using our platform, always operating from a place of kindness, and standing up for what we believe in in terms of our window signs and the kinds of books we carry. I think we're always trying to find new ways to serve our community and that it's absolutely an evolving project for us.”
Uncharted Books’ space is eccentrically decorated, with walls of hanging pictures and little figures and knick-knacks adorning the tops of bookshelves. Walking through the narrow aisles is comforting, like being swallowed by a sea of books. Small labels made from scrabble pieces bring a sense of order to the rows and rows of packed shelves. While not a very spacious store, the character that each item provides makes up for the lack in size. On one shelf, a treasure chest labeled “DR. SEUSS BOX OF FUN” rests open for passersby to look inside.
To offset some of the lost culture of lingering through stacks of books for hours on end, Uncharted Books has created a new way of exploring. The store is offering custom mystery boxes “filled with a curated selection of used books” which, according to Ganson, “does in some ways replicate the experience of browsing.”
However, battling an ever-evolving pandemic has been challenging. “There really isn't a good way for us to reproduce our normal business model. We've been relying on book donations because we're not able, financially or safety-wise, to buy books like we normally do, which has been largely successful but isn't as steady or predictable as book-buying.”
Despite the quietness inside the store due to the temporary closure of in-person browsing, multiple potential customers stopped by the shop’s windows during my time there, attempting a peek inside. A few people stopped by to collect pick-up orders while I wandered around the back, examining what appeared to be a lamp in the shape of a knight next to a series of tall candles. It seems that Uncharted Books is successfully navigating their way through the uncertainty of this pandemic.
Although facing hardships throughout the year, Uncharted Books is tenacious and still offering services to their community. The shop is primarily operating through book donations and online orders, but plans on reopening for browsing in March 2021. Uncharted Books’ instagram handle is @unchartedbooks and their website is unchartedbooks.com. f