On its website, the Book Cellar advertises itself as “Your independent bookstore in Lincoln Square.” The curmudgeonly old cynic who rents a room inside my head suspects that is simply a clever piece of marketing. The true believer who owns a vacation home in my heart, however, is totally smitten. The Book Cellar just feels like my neighborhood bookstore, even though it is not exactly in my neighborhood. It’s a short, pleasant walk from my apartment to the store, but I suspect that book lovers across the expansive city of Chicago think of the Book Cellar as their very own.
What makes the Book Cellar stand out among friendly neighborhood bookstores is not only its ability to stay in business but also the charming cafe one finds inside. You can have a cup of coffee at the Book Cellar if you like, but you can also have a beer or glass of wine. The cafe also offers a surprisingly wide array of salads and sandwiches, including a grilled cheese that is worth stopping in for even if you aren’t book shopping.
Despite its novelty, the cafe doesn’t feel like a gimmick, either, and that is what makes this arrangement work. It’s not a way to attract customers, at least intitially. That’s what the books are for, speaking of novel ideas. The cafe is a natural outgrowth of the proprietors’ and patrons’ sincere appreciation of the written word. It’s a place where locals gather for book clubs and readings. It’s a place that tempts one to wax poetic about sustenance for the soul and nourishment for the mind. And it’s possibly what keeps the Book Cellar open and thriving in an otherwise bleak world for independent booksellers.
After a period of weeks in which I joined tens of thousands of others in troubling over the imminent collapse of St. Mark’s Bookshop, a store of far more historical import, the Book Cellar is a welcome respite from the reality that bookstores everywhere are closing. Not so long ago, my parents’ generation lamented the paving of paradise so that parking lots might be built. I fear that we’ll see those parking lots serve not bookstores, but convenience shops in the relatively near future. At the Book Cellar, though, it’s easy to mistake the death rattle for the hustle and bustle of a thriving book business.