Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hours of the UniverseThere is an unassuming storefront on Washington Street in Evanston, just south and west of the Main Street L and Metra stations, which houses the Chicago Rare Book Center. The front door opens on to what could be the studio apartment of an occasionally fastidious book collector. Or at least it could be if said collector had unfailing taste and funds (and no kitchen or bed). For all of the books with short, typed descriptions of their significance tucked neatly in their jackets in the twenty to thirty feet of glass cases that line the east and west walls of the shop’s anterior, there is another stack of boxed books (including, I have on good faith, a magnificent early edition of Johnson’s dictionary, a most staggering example of human intellect). When I inquired in passing about a signed first edition of Infinite Jest, I was given a full tour of that volume, as well as a test drive of a complete collection of the original serial edition of Dombey and Son and a volume of Yeats poems apparently signed from beyond the grave by the man himself. For every book in the case, there is a story, and any of the four store’s partners are happy to tell you any one of them.

Ann, Paul, Tom, and Pat, the store’s partners, are also happy to let you browse in peace. On one of my recent visits, Tom was occupied helping a would-be-seller find a buyer for some obscure book with an apparently interesting collection of maps. After my girlfriend and I had made enough laps of the ground floor to send me in search of a chair, Tom called out to us,

“Folks, there are more books downstairs. Feel free to have a look around.”

We descended the stairs, and in the basement we discovered what could be that aforementioned book collector-with-occasional-fastidiousness’s personal library. There is a small open case of signed editions including Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake and John Updike’s memoir Self-conscious. There is a table with a few antique bookends and crates of LPs. The floor-to-ceiling shelves (or ceiling-to-shelf for you Reaganites) which wrap around the basement have all of the basics: History, Literature, Gardening, Religion, and beyond. I found myself loitering between the sections of World War I and Gardening books, an area which houses several dozen volumes of transportation books, broken down further into a shelf each of Trains and Railroad, Ships and Navigation, and Automobiles. For any of you skeptical of the majesty of the railroad, please find a first edition folio of Robert S. Henry’s Portraits of the Iron Horse in its original cloth binding, and get back to me. I can’t promise I won't say I told you so.

I would like to report on each book I found that piqued my interest, but I fear you will race yourself to Chicago Rare and raid my wishlist. I would also like to report a conversation with Pat about, as I dumbly stated to him, “What it is you do, and why you do it.” Suffice it instead to say, I’ll be back another time when he is less entrenched in cataloguing a haul of books from an out-of-town fair. When I return, I hope to find, spellbound with me.