Barbara's Bookstore Is Leaving Its Hallowed Old Town Halls - John Blades, Chicago Tribune - Mar. 20, 1989
Over three decades, the landscape of Old Town has changed as drastically as an Arabian flea market, with the disappearance of the Wax Museum, Crystal Pistol, Pickle Barrel, assorted head shops, Belgian waffle huts and other unlamented emporiums from the Age of Aquarius and Day-Glo.
Through all the neighborhood`s cultural and economic convolutions, its passing fads and fancies, one of the few symbols of permanence has been Barbara`s Bookstore, even though Barbara herself departed the scene in 1971. Among many other milestones, the venerable bookstore has survived police raids, bomb scares and a succession of poetry readings by Allen ('Howl') Ginsberg, whose performance at Barbara`s 25th birthday celebration in November, 1986, drew 1,000 members of the beat, hippie and yuppie generations. But what the bookstore hasn`t been able to surmount are the irreversible afflictions of old age, such as leaky plumbing, sagging ceilings and floors and a primitive furnace.
As a result, Barbara's Bookstore will soon abandon its antiquated Victorian storefront at 1434 N. Wells St. for much larger and fancier quarters in a newly rehabbed shopping mall. However foreboding that may seem, there's little or no cause for alarm, according to Pat Peterson, the bookstore's co-owner. Barbara`s is moving only a block south on Wells to Cobbler Square, formerly Doctor Scholl's podiatry factory, where it will occupy space with Pier One and other shops.
"I know it sounds trite," said Peterson, whose domain includes two other Barbara's Bookstores, in New Town and Oak Park, `"but this is the beginning of a new era. There's lots of wonderful history in this store, but we desperately need a bigger arena to make more history." The Cobbler Square store will mean almost twice as much space for books, she pointed out, as well as a platform and sound system to accommodate the audiences for its frequent author readings and promotions.
When the bookstore does vacate the premises, on or about June 1, Peterson hopes to take along as much of the store`s physical history as she can, such as the sliding oak doors, the fireplace mantelpieces and any other fixtures that are transportable and worth salvaging. No matter how much of the old store is grafted onto the new, Peterson knows, there are sure to be old customers who complain that a newer and bigger Barbara's is not necessarily a better one, that it will have lost its distinctively grungy charm.
But Peterson won`t get any complaints from the bookstore's founder and namesake, Barbara Siegel Markowitz, now a literary agent in Los Angeles. Though surprised when informed by phone of the store`s imminent move, she wasn`t distressed by the news. "As long as it`s still going to be on Wells Street, I feel good about it," Markowitz said. "I'm sentimental about the store, but not about the building, not in any way."
The daughter of Max Siegel, a Chicago literary agent and bookseller himself, Markowitz borrowed $12,000 to open Barbara's in 1963, after deciding that Old Town, then an embryonic center of bohemia and commerce, needed a bookshop, one that catered to her own tastes in arcane or subversive literature, which was not generally available elsewhere.
Modeled after the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, Barbara's, like Old Town itself, became a sanctuary for both the radical and the chic, for resident as well as visiting dignitaries. Among her regular clientele in those early years were Willard Motley, Nelson Algren, Jack Conroy, Jules Feiffer, Arna Bontemps, Shel Silverstein and Woody Allen, who used to stop by whenever he played Mister Kelly`s.
NOT JUST FOR LITERATI
But it wasn't an exclusively literary refuge. Markowitz recalled the day a tall, stylishly dressed woman disembarked from a limousine, carrying a poodle and a gift basket of fruit. "It was Jacqueline Susann, who was in town promoting her latest book. Even though I wasn't on her itinerary, she said she had to meet me because she'd heard so much about the store. She was very gracious, and I was glad I happened to have one or two copies of her book in stock."
All of Markowitz`s memories are not quite so pleasant or upbeat. The bookstore was raided twice, the first time in 1967 by federal agents, who confiscated 27 copies of "Quotations from Chairman Mao." The books were subsequently returned with apologies for the proprietor's inconvenience.
Two years later, Barbara was arrested on obscenity charges for selling issues of the Seed, an underground newspaper of the time, that contained "lewd and indecent" illustrations. The charges were dismissed, but not before Markowitz had spent eight hours in jail. "I was fingerprinted and mugshot," she said. "They even took a pin off my dress because they were afraid I might use it as a weapon. That was very scary, except I did hear some great stories from women in cells on both sides of me."
As a frequent target of censorship herself, when she persisted in flaunting such "offensive" books as "Fannie Hill" and "The One-Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding," Markowitz was dismayed recently by booksellers who temporarily withdrew their copies of "The Satanic Verses" during the international tempest over Salman Rushdie's novel.
"I got a lot of heavy threats, by phone and letter," she said. "I always let my employees know about these, and I understood if they were too uncomfortable or frightened to come to work. But I wasn't going to be intimidated into taking the books off the shelves."
Markowitz has few regrets that she gave up her bookstore and moved to Los Angeles when her husband, an NBC executive, was transferred there 18 years ago. "I do miss the business and a lot of my old customers. And I miss the politics of the 42d and 43d Wards. But after having the store for 8 years and working 12 to 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, I was ready to sell."
Pat Peterson didn't come along until four years after Barbara sold out. Formerly the head of Kroch's & Brentano's Loop paperback department, she joined Barbara's as a sales clerk, then became manager and chief buyer for all three stores. In 1984, owner Don Barliant made her a partner on the basis of her "sweat equity," Peterson said. "No cash, just the best years of my life."
Though she and Barbara have never met, Peterson clearly has inherited some of her predecessor's dissident spirit, so that the store remains an outpost of '50s- and '60s-style literary and sociopolitical ferment. That's exemplified not only by the periodic Ginsberg readings but the party that Peterson threw last year for the authors of books by and about the Chicago 7 on the 20th anniversary of the riotous Democratic National Convention.
"It turned out to be a smash, a real nutty, frenetic night," said Peterson, who looked properly neobohemian in her black turtleneck and jeans, sitting in her quaintly shabby office above the bookstore.
Having spent nearly 14 years at Barbara's, almost twice as many as Barbara herself, Peterson, 37, has as much or more reason to be nostalgic and regretful about the move. "I feel I`m leaving my childhood home," she said. She does expect to miss such idiosyncratic touches as the mismatched wooden shelves and the books piled haphazardly on a stairway, its bannister strung with Christmas-tree lights.
But she won't shed any tears over what she calls the "wall that weeps," explaining, "It weeps all over our books whenever it rains." Nor will she miss the grime, the dust and the heating system, whose failure one arctic winter forced the store to close for a month and nearly put it out of business permanently.
"I'd love to stay here and expand upward, but it's irreparable," said Peterson, pointing to the fissures and holes in the store's ceiling, the blistering paint and wallpaper. "Eventually, the building is going to be demolished, and we can't wait around for the wrecking ball. It's been wonderful, but it's time to go."