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City Lit books opened this summer in Logan Square. Owner Teresa Kirschbraun is hoping her business background and strong sense of the community will help her create a gathering space.

City Lit in Logan Square joins the fight for old-fashioned books

by Camille Izlar
Nov 13, 2012

When Borders closed 15 Chicago stores in 2011, several independent booksellers followed close behind. Barbara’s Books shuffled its locations, Europa’s Books shut down last September and the end of Bookman’s Alley looms over Evanston. Despite the depressing climate, Teresa Kirschbraun opened a store in August selling new books at retail pricing. Her hope is that a strong background in business and a keen sense of her community will help her succeed where others have failed.

“I was always one of those nerds helping the librarians shelve books during recess,” Kirschbraun said. Despite her early aspirations, Kirschbraun pursued a career in healthcare consulting. She worked with Ernst & Young, LLP for years managing health-care businesses before she decided to return to her lifelong love: books.

In the midst of the 2009 economic recession, Kirschbraun attempted to get a bank loan to start her business. “It was impossible. I never got past the point of ‘who are you’…It was no. There is no money,” remembers Kirschbraun. But she didn’t want to wait for the economy to perk up.

“My husband and I looked into our finances and saw how we could do it, because there wasn’t going to be another way.” Knowing the risk of a personally financed business, Kirschbraun did as much as possible to prepare herself. She took a class in bookstore management, attended conferences and meet with accountants to forecast scenarios.

Small business accountant Nancy McClelland says Kirschbraun is rare among small business owners. “She went into this very carefully, only after meeting with industry consultants. I have no doubt she’s anticipated her challenges and will meet them head-on,” said McClelland, who is also Kirschbraun’s accountant.

Kirschbraun has hired five employees and is hoping to break even by the end of this year. “Since we’re so fresh, it’s hard to be realistic about our expectations, but I’m pleased with our sales from the first two months,” said Kirschbraun. According to a government report, spending on books increased 5 percent in September 2012. Kirschbraun is hoping holiday sales will give her business a boost.

This summer, San Francisco’s Kepler’s Books initiated “Kepler’s 2020,” a project to create a thriving model for independent bookstores. While the first tenet they champion is fiscal responsibility, a close second is appealing to the community as a local gathering space. For Kirschbraun, the Logan Square neighborhood is the heart of her business.

Kirschbraun and her husband have lived in Logan Square for more than 20 years. She had many opportunities to put her store in other neighborhoods or rent cheaper space. But she feared that settling somewhere less convenient to her customers would designate it as a retail space and not a community center.

“It took a long time to find a great site. I wasn’t going to sacrifice what I wanted to do in my community,” said Kirschbraun.

Finally, Kirschbraun settled a lease for her current location: 2523 Kedzie Ave., right under the auspices of the Logan Square Eagle. Kirschbraun ordered books that she felt fit the interests of the community. The fiction section is the largest in the store, but she wants to grow other genres.

“There are a lot of young families here loving the children’s section,” said Kirschbraun. She says her store will be flexible and react to the desires of the community.

Looking a little more broadly, Kirschbraun wants to make Logan Square a literary destination. Hyper-local authors provide an exciting opportunity. She will host authors from as close as six blocks away in whatever environment fits the book best. For example, City Lit will host a discussion in Revolution Brewery on “Never Leave Your Block” by Scott Jacobs. Jacob’s book features Bucktown as a model for how small urban communities are changing American cities.

Kirschbraun has been getting help from her community as well. Lula Café, a popular Logan brunch spot three doors up from City Lit, has sent customers to browse books while they are waiting for a table. Boulevard Bikes, another neighbor, has been just as supportive, said Kirschbraun.

“We’re incredibly fortunate that Logan Square places a strong emphasis on the value of independent business, recognizing that consumers and owners together, as neighbors, help our community grow and develop,” said accountant McClelland, who is also a Logan Square resident.

Other bookstores also have tried to nurture community development in order to stay afloat. Mandy Medley of Powell’s bookstore says that the physical store is an essential part of the mission.

“We are really committed to keeping a brick-and-mortar presence in Chicago because it’s so important for community growth,” said Medley. Medley said that Powell’s has stayed in business through the recession primarily because of its low prices. As a used bookstore, Powell’s can sell books at one-third to two-thirds off the regular price.

Barbara’s Bookstore, a Chicago brand since 1963, has diversified its market by edging its way into the department stores. Through a partnership with Macy’s, Barbara’s has expanded its reach to an audience that doesn’t usually go seeking books, said owner Donald Barliant.

“If you go to your grocery store or your dress shop, I want there to be books.
I’d like to people who don’t ordinarily don’t see books to be able to see them,” said Barliant.

The Book Cellar is another independent bookstore that has focused on community activities in its neighborhood, Lincoln Square. “We probably have three to four events per week, including six book clubs, and some not-so-usual groups like a women’s comedy club,” said cashier Sky Anderson.

A key part of City Lit’s neighborhood platform is the knowledgeable and friendly staff. The shelves are peppered with staff recommendations, some of which boast notoriously bad handwriting that is eye catching. Little touches like the Banned Book section and Nightstand Reading show the personal character of the store.

At the same time, a clean and orderly sense pervades City Lit, unlike the characteristically chaotic look of many used bookstores, which can overwhelm browsers. City Lit doesn’t employ any radical marketing attempts, except the radical idea of opening a small business, a bookstore.

While Kirschbraun is having difficulty finding time to read these days, she says her advice for other bookstore owners is “to be sure to stock the books you love, even if they aren’t the most popular.”