Our condolences go out to the family and friends of longtime Chicago bookseller, John Chandler, owner of Bookman’s Corner.
The Chandler Way: High Turnover versus High Prices
by Carlos Martinez
(NOTE: This article, written several years ago, is here followed by a postscript.)
Tucked into a triangular corner of a busy feeder street is one of Chicago’s strangest bookstores–a model to all booksellers who have dreamt of high turnover. Bookman’s Corner, aptly named, takes up a miniscule v-shaped area and crams some 25,000 volumes (according to its entry in The Used Book Lover’s Guide to the Midwest) into rows of closely set bookcases reaching to the ceiling, giving at least one customer claustrophobia and causing constant accidents, bumps, toppled piles, and near-tumbles, one eager browser actually having tripped over a pile and fallen on a bed of books. On top of that, there is hardly a book priced at $20, and the vast majority are priced at around $4 or less.
Prescription for disaster? Hardly. John Chandler, the owner, told me that he clears a hundred grand on a bad year. That makes him one of Chicago’s best-grossing open shop dealers. But you would not know it to look at John. Dressed in the simplest workingman-at-home attire, often unshaven, his counter a mess of paper and books, without cash register or charge card terminal and with only a yellow legal pad and a pencil to tally his sales (he gives no receipts), you get an impression of a flea market hustler who went into the book business on a shoestring, and got into a ropeful of trouble.
Yet the yuppie and preppie community around his store loves him and moves those piles very quickly from floor to counter to shopping bag to car or bus or bike, or for simple perambulation. So who are those book-buyers, and what is Chandler’s secret? Can his success be duplicated, and if it can, why is it not?
Chandler is open every day from 12 to 7 except Sunday, when he closes at 6, and Monday, when he is only open from 2 till 4. His store is on the corner of a huge apartment complex. Across the street is a shopping plaza featuring a Kinko’s, an Ace Hardware, and assorted shops and cafes. He is on Clark Street, one of the busiest streets in Chicago’s Near North Side and his shop is a holdover from the fabled Nelson Algren-Stuart Brent-Studs Terkel era. It used to have a black awning on which were the unforgettable words–“Books: Rare, Medium, Well Done.”
The awning got tattered with time, though naturally it never detracted from the old bookshop atmosphere, and was eventually replaced by a sign in the window. But the gentrifying upscale community would have none of that, so it had to go. Once made up partly of older residents who spend time at the shop talking of the old days, the majority are now young upwardly mobile residents. Some are roomies, some are students of nearby DePaul University, and the majority have good disposable income. But most like to spend less than $5 for a used book. I have met a few of them at the annual outdoor Printer’s Row Book Fair, where they quibble quite seriously over prices even at my 3-books-for-$10 table.
“You have to turn over stock real fast,” John said to me one day, making rapid vertical gyrations with his index finger.
And in order to do that, he explained, prices are kept low. Any book that has been in the store for more than six months is immediately cut by 50% from what was already a ridiculously low price.
But how does he get enough stock to price that way?
He gets it at Powell’s Book Warehouse or at CIROBE–the annual Chicago International Remainder and Overstock Expo, where he spends sometimes as much as $12,000 on one trip.
He has a small contingent of book scouts who make the rounds of local thrift stores and wheel in boxes of books on a hand truck, or carry them in from illegally parked cars (parking is another problem) in large canvas shopping bags.
He gets calls from building rehabbers with garages full of books abandoned by previous owners, and from friends who find a container full of books from a local demolition job, or from retired bookdealers trying to unload their residual stock, cheap.
He himself scouts antique dealers, secondhand shops, AAUW and library book sales, and the huge Brandeis’ Book Sales, spending prolifically.
His takings are a mixed lot. Certainly, no valuable treasures here–no early Hemingway firsts or Arthur Rackham color plate books in green bindings from London. That is, unless a damaged copy shows up. There are plenty of broken sets, ex-libris, reprint houses, jacketless reading copies with bumped or chipped corners and long inscriptions from Grandma Mathilde to Jane in June of 1918. Paperbacks abound on the fiction shelves.
Then there is the good stuff. But you have to really dig for it, which is the fun.
Among the books I have unearthed at Chandler’s (all but one for less than $8 apiece, believe me) are Joaquin Miller’s First Families of the Sierras (1876), the first popular edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1929), The Front Page by Hecht and MacArthur (first edition), Trotsky’s biography of Stalin (1935), a set of six bound volumes of National Geographic from the 1910’s in red quarter leather and marbled boards (these came at $12 each), Edith Wharton’s The Children (1928), John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy (two volumes, 1877), and five mint remainder copies of Shackleton’s Aurora Australis, first trade publication, all since sold for nice markups on the net.
My best coup was a first edition of H.L. Mencken’s first book, George Bernard Shaw: His Plays (1910), in the original dust jacket for $20. I have never seen another copy, before or since.
Along with these I have netted hundreds of standard titles and internet warhorses, perennial sellers like Michener’s Presidential Lottery, Warrant for Genocide (on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion), Koestler’s The Thirteenth Tribe, The Fire That Will Not Die, and the books of Mike Royko and Sydney J. Harris.
Chandler is no dummy. He has been in the business for over 30 years and knows books, knows when he has a blue chip (although a modest one, given his sources). But he does not seem to care to make a killing. And because of his modest pricing policy, thousands of Chicagoans and out of state bookdealers are in his growing fan club.
One of them is longtime book scout David Meyer. Of all the dealers he met during “forty years of seeking and saving old books,” he chose Chandler for the dedication of his memoir, Book Snake (Waltham Street Press, 2001). “The last Chicago bookman in the old manner,” he wrote in his dedicatory, and to talk to John Chandler and watch him work is to understand why.
Chandler is somewhat stout and of medium height, with graying hair and a perpetually unshaven look. He wears short-sleeve summer shirts and cotton slacks, and his face may suggest a plumpier gray-haired David Schwimmer. His eyes are deep set and his brows pulled back in a fixed expression of weariness, and you are nervous when you first approach him; but when he speaks you feel like you have just met a friendly neighbor at the local bar, or rather a Chicago bar. He is all Chicago, from his accent and local dialect to his way with stories. “How are you, my brother? Didja catch deh book sale in Evanston? Nooo? Aw, come ooon! Ya missed da good deal! Well, dat’s all?” He takes your book from your pile, looks at the price on the corner of the free endpaper and slams it on the counter. “Five big ones!”
“He works very hard,” said antiquarian dealer Tom Joyce, understatedly. Chandler’s way challenges the old adage that bookselling is “a very pleasant way to make very little money.” His work is neither pleasant nor penurious. Of all the Chicago used book dealers, he probably works the hardest–lifting and moving boxes, taking out armloads of books, pricing each one, climbing his stationary library ladder, pulling dated stock, moving stacks up and down, from floor to shelf to sale shelf where they go for 99 cents, and thence to outside boxes to be picked up free. He moves a couple of thousand books each month, the vast majority of them for $4 or less. With Father Time pushing him over sixty, it’s a miracle the man does not drop.
I have suggested that in the future the open shop will be a bookseller’s mall, a cafe-bookstore, or an online remainders conglomerate. If even a third of this country’s booksellers were like Chandler, the open shop would be here to sta
On February 15 I received a text message from longtime bookseller and friend Rhonda Pilon of Bookworks.
“We just received a call from Brad Jonas informing us that John Chandler passed away last week. Brad was contacted by John’s nephew. There are no further details at this time. Brad will be contacting the MWABA also.”
I told Rhonda I would dig up my article on John and forward her a copy. I then went online and searched for any news or obituary explaining what happened to John. But there was nothing at all. There were three or four old profiles of John and his bookstore for shoppers and tourists, but of his passing not a word.
In the more than 30 years I knew John he never mentioned his family or relatives. To this day I do not know if he was married. But John was not alone very often. Thousands of booklovers visited his shop every month, and many kept coming back. I was one of them. In a way, I like to think we were his family. Like a good uncle or neighbor, he regaled us with his stories, his humor, and his books.
Rest in peace, old friend. Somewhere behind the “pearly gates” there may now be a cluttered and unkempt yet delightful spot where books are still served “rare, medium, and well done.”