Teresa Kirschbraun, owner of City Lit Books in Logan Square, knows her customers. She is their neighbor, after all, having lived in Logan Square herself for more than 25 years.
“Selfishly I wanted my commute to be eight blocks,” Kirschbraun said with a laugh.
In the eyes of her customers, however, the choice was hardly selfish.
“People thank me all the time for opening this place,” Kirschbraun said. “I did it for me initially and now I feel like it is way beyond that.”
Kirschbraun opened her store in 2012, becoming the neighborhood’s first independent bookstore to specialize in new general-interest books.
While the largest section is fiction (which is also what brings in the most revenue), the store features every genre, ranging from history to young adult fiction. In a cozy alcove in the back of the store, children have their own section—a place to play and read while their parents shop.
Of all the aspects of her business, Kirschbraun said she is most proud of the community of readers she has helped build.
“I put in a lot and I think I have a lot of energy about it but some of the community that’s developed, and how people come in here and talk—it’s a gathering place now,” Kirschbraun said.
“I mean they’ll go away and they’ll come back because they’ve been thinking about the store. I never imagined that it would be that important to people. It just blows me away.”
Facing out to North Kedize Ave., one of the neighborhood’s busiest streets, the welcoming storefront is nestled on a corner next to the popular Logan Square eatery, Lula Café, which helps draw foot traffic to the area but visually the store is perhaps best known for its signature red awnings and windows full of information advertising City Lit’s activities, including book clubs, story times, author signings, and more.
“A lot of people run past here and they’ll stop when they’re running and look at the posters.” Kirschbaum said. “There’s almost always some kind of event happening, either offsite or in the store.”
For Kirschbaum, professional relationships are the key to success. In a recent partnership with Printers Row, City Lit provided books for an event with “Orange is the New Black” star Kate Mulgrew on her new memoir, “Born With Teeth.”
“I’m trying to do that with other kinds of businesses that have other author events,” says Kirschbraun. “You can go in and in one night sell 100 or 200 books. That’s really where you grow the business.”
In addition to having an active presence on social media, Kirschbraun advertises on Chicago’s classic music radio station 98.7 WFMT. Her one-minute spots highlight upcoming events and special offers, and have proven successful and multiple customers have mentioned hearing about the store from the radio station.
Kirschbraun speaks fondly of her regulars and recently launched a new loyalty program.
“People come on Saturday and then they’re back on Sunday,” Kirschbraun said. “I wanted to let them know I really appreciate that.”
“We just take your name and for every $200 you spend you get a $20 gift certificate. There’s no fee or cards or anything else for you to do we just track.”
With an MBA in health administration and a resume rich with experience in consulting and managing small businesses, Kirschbraun knew what she was getting herself into when she opened her own shop.
“She definitely knows how to run a business,” said Lucy Williams, an employee of the store.
Before coming to work for City Lit, Williams sold translation rights to books for the University of Chicago Press. Having seen both sides of publishing, Williams understands how important it is to maintain a good relationship with a publisher.
“This is one of the very few businesses where the price of the product is stamped on the product,” Kirschbraun said. “So it’s not that the publisher’s set a price and I can decide what I pay them. If they say a book costs ten dollars, I can’t say well I want to make five dollars on this book. The price of the book is on the book.”
Working within a fixed margin can be tricky, but ever since the Borders went out of business in 2011, publishers have taken extra care in helping bookstores stay afloat, said publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin.
“Publishers depend on bookstores,” Shatzkin said. “The main proposition that publishers have always offered—and this is always changing, but it’s still true—is we put books on shelves. You cannot do that yourself.”
Shatzkin went on to say that more than ever, publishers are depending on bookstores to stay in business.
“You can make the e-book yourself, you can get it edited yourself, you can sign up with Amazon yourself, you can print books yourself, you can print books on demand and not even have to store them in your warehouse or your garage yourself, but you cannot put books on hundreds of store shelves yourself,” Shatzkin said.
“That is the key offer that keeps publishers in business. And as the number of shelves diminish, so does the publisher’s importance and leverage.”
Luckily for both Shatzkin and Kirschbraun, independent bookstores are undergoing something of a renaissance. According to the American Bookseller Association, the number of independent bookstores increased by 20 percent, from 1,651 in 2009 to 2,094 in 2014.
From 2000 to 2007 nearly 1,000 bookstores went out of business, but when Borders closed its doors in 2011, an opportunity arose.
“The Borders shutdown is the single biggest contributor to the growth of independents,” Shatzkin said.
“Although there is probably in my mind still a steadily declining need for book retail shelf space, so much of it was removed in one fell swoop in 2010-2011 that it created an imbalance in the market. Independents are succeeding in capitalizing on that.”
While there will always be competition with the online marketplace, Kirschbraun believes smaller bookstores offer an experience customers will never have online—a face-to-face recommendation from someone who can find solutions beyond the search bar.
“Some of the requests are kind of obscure—books that none of us have heard of, books that are out of print, books that you can only get in Britain, or just, ‘I saw this book on the New York Times Bestseller List last year. I think it had a blue cover,’” Kirschbraun said.
“We do the best we can to search. ‘What was it about? Was it a mystery?’”
Limited only by the confines of the distributor’s online database, it’s rare that the City Lit staff cannot find a solution.
Williams recites a colorful tale about a customer in search of a graduation present.
“She needed a book that was like uplifting because it was graduation but it had to do with pharmacy, but it was her sister so it had to be appropriate,” Williams said with a small laugh. While the staff did eventually find something for her, it took a long time. It’s those kinds of requests that set City Lit apart, she said.
“We can’t survive without having exceptional customer service.”