As she made her way from shelf to shelf with an armful of oversized children’s books, straightening and arranging as she went, Teresa Kirschbraun paused to survey her store. She smiled from ear to ear at the bustling room, normally a little quieter but that day full of conversation and the buzz of Independent Bookstore Day attendees.
Kirschbraun, the owner of City Lit Books, said that the character of the store, which will have been in business for two years this August, has become what it is today due to input from loyal customers and from the neighborhood as a whole. As she was exploring ideas for a business after deciding to leave her career in health care, Kirschbraun said her love of books came to mind.
“I quickly realized that for a city the size of Chicago, there are many fewer bookstores per capita than there should be,” she said.
Kirschbraun applied her experience in showing others how to run their businesses to a business model of an independent bookstore in Logan Square, the neighborhood she’s lived in for 25 years.
“It turned out to be a very good fit in terms of socioeconomics and how the demographics of the neighborhood are changing,” she said.
One aspect of City Lit that Kirschbraun said she always new she wanted to include was having it show support for local authors.
“I want to be able to help them with exposure and promotion,” she said. “Some of the authors live right down the street and have their families and friends come in for their readings and book releases.”
The spirit of that communal space was present for the recent Independent Bookstore Day event that City Lit Books participated in along with eight other retailers of new books across Chicago. The store played host to events such as a children’s story time — a program offered at City Lit on a regular basis — a cookbook signing that included free samples and a reading featuring authors whose work is published by independent local imprint Curbside Splendor Publishing.
“I live about two blocks from here,” Susan Lanier said.
Lanier, who read a story from an upcoming collection of her work that will be published in the Fall by Curbside Splendor, said that she feels it’s important to get the message across that when people support local bookstores, they are supporting local authors.
“I buy most of my books here on a regular basis,” she said. “The people doing the publishing and hosting events like this are very passionate about what they do.”
Kirschbraun said that a store like City Lit Books is sustained by its personal relationships with its customers.
“From very early on we’ve had extremely loyal and committed customers,” Kirschbraun said. “We have some families that come in every Saturday to browse and pick out books, some people are here every Friday after work to choose books for the weekend.”
Cathy Morris, who travels from Winnetka, Illinois with her husband to visit City Lit regularly, is one of those die-hard customers.
“I love the idea of independent bookstores,” Morris said.
She said she followed one of the employees at City Lit from a bookstore in Winnetka that he used to work at because of how much she trusted his opinion and book recommendations. She added that for her, shopping in stores like City Lit offers a personal experience.
“The people here are very well read, I love the idea of stores like this and feel compelled to support them.”
Though she has only worked at City Lit for about a month, Chelka Posladek said that she feels working in the store has afforded her the opportunity of really getting to know Logan Square as a neighborhood.
“There’s a nice community of parents with small children who really love the store,” she said. “I think the fact that we offer story time and have a selection of books for them is important.”
Kirschbraun said that apart from Uncharted Books, a nearby store selling only used books, City Lit doesn’t have much competition as far as independent stores are concerned.
“I grew up in a town without an independent bookstore,” Jason Netek said.
Netek, an employee at City Lit said that the only access he had to books was through a big chain store that carried the generic stock of what people were supposed to read.
“Working in an independent bookstore gives you the opportunity to see a store be shaped by the people that come in and get the books they want to get,” he said. “I’ve seen certain sections of the store significantly change since I’ve been here based on customer suggestions and recommendations for titles. We are excited to order those books.”
Kirschbraun said this interaction between customers and the store itself will benefit the community along with the independent businesses.
“This is the first time since we’ve been a store that an event like Independent Bookstore Day has taken place,” she said. “People appreciate that we are here, that we know the books and that we are excited about them.”