The Tipsy Librarian: Bookstores And Bars Chicago Style


Happy New Year, internet denizens. Here in my personal library of two and a half bookcases, I confess I welcomed 2014 with a heavy heart and a tendency toward ponderous musings. One, it marked the passing of one of the tall trees of my family, the pastel blazer-wearing, wavy white-headed, nearly-90-year-old Uncle Bob. He was the number one family storyteller and intuitive historian—my love of stories, no doubt, originates from hours I spent rapt with attention to the rise and fall of Uncle Bob’s voice, slick as a ribbon, a booming conductor of epic tales.

Several years ago I recorded Uncle Bob telling his stories on a handheld digital recorder. But when you’re raised on stories told out loud, it just doesn’t come naturally to access family stories by gathering around the MacBook Pro and pressing “play.” What’s lost is the context of Uncle Bob’s stories, and with it the lived experience of a story’s discovery.

Secondly, here in New Orleans, a beloved independent bookstore closes its doors this month. McKeown’s Books and Difficult Music, one of New Orleans’ excellent independent sellers of new and used books, is located on Tchoupitoulas Street, just across from a legendary New Orleanian “snoball” shop, Hansen’s Sno Bliz.

Just like listening to a good story told by your Uncle Bob, finding a book in the shelves of a unique bookstore holds rewards that online hunting and clicking can’t provide—in addition to helping you get to know your community better, contributing to the local economy and practicing your social skills. (Psst–booksellers are excellent people with whom to practice one’s social skills.)

McKeowns to me will forever be linked with the turning point in my life when I plunged headfirst into my love of Djuna Barnes one ridiculously hot summer, and her steamy, dissatisfied headspace was just perfect for me, writ large in works like Nightwood and The Book of Repulsive Women. McKeowns was organized, clean, and not a bit sticky, despite its proximity to the store that produces hundreds of sugary-sweet clumps of shaved ice. They hosted music concerts and poetry readings, and they will be missed.

Uncle Bob’s stories won’t be the same without him, and our experiences with books won’t be the same without their mothership, the independent bookstore, often cultivated and curated with specific readers—and communities—in mind.

These ponderous events, and the recent Polar Vortex prompted me to turn to my well-worn Bookstore Travel Diary and search for my memories of my last extended visit to Chicago, a city I am sending warm wishes to during our cold snap. When I look northward in my mind’s eye from New Orleans, I think of our frosty brother Chicago, because historically, it’s been the destination for many emigrants from the south in the first half of the twentieth century during what is known as the Great Migration.

Cultural icons such as Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong are just two of many who took their talent and ambition northward along the Illinois Central Line, and the two cities consequently have a legacy of cultural exchange. It’s an easy city to love.

My diary is a large wire-bound thing decorated with velvet ribbons and pictures of Bob Seger. This is where I record accounts of my favorite bookstores. Once upon a time, in the not too distant past, your Tipsy Librarian lived in Chicago for a summer, gorging herself on Indian food and Persian faloodeh on Devon Avenue and collecting sensory information about independent bookstores.

With storytellers and Chicago on my mind, in memoriam and in celebration of those special places we discover the treasures of stories, I offer you, dear readers, details about three of the seven I spent hours in, each unique brick and mortar bookstores in the windy city. I reached each one by public transportation with minimal walking. Each staffs knowledgable, friendly employees, and each excels in its niche, and each is much more than a store. I include recommended local cocktail pairings, for your own Chicago-going professional knowledge. You’re welcome. 

Myopic Books. 1564 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Wicker Park.

myopicbooksMulti-level, many wooden slats through which to peer, dizzying inventory of all genre and history, including art books and out-of-prints. Hosts music and poetry series. Affordable for used and barely used. Nice drama section. You can find some pretty recent bestsellers here too. When I was there, they broadcast the baseball game.

Pairing: A crisp beer that won’t interfere with your thoughts after browsing a breathtaking spectrum of the written word. There are numerous bars in spitting distance where you can drink beer and continue listening to the game.

Quimby’s1854 N. Avenue, Wicker Park. 


Sells independent and small press books—new comics, zines, local authors.We favor the unusual, the aberrant, the saucy and the lowbrow.” Signage is super clear, and written in a fun, consistent handwriting on chalkboards. Thoughtful subsections and recommendations. Quimby’s is a store but also a community resource for local arts and independent publishing.

Pairing: A lychee martini at Rodan. Closer to My Opic, but the sleek, curated feel will complement the intentional space of Quimby’s, even if the latter veers toward steam punk and the former veers toward pricey first-date cocktails.

The Occult Book & Spirit Shop. 1164 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Noble Square.


A tradition that started in 1918, this is a mystical and spiritual resource store. Some general self-help books in addition to spiritual paraphernalia. Buy crystals and spells; staff will counsel you on how to use it all.

Pairing: I recommend you get back on the bus (takes over an hour) or drive the seven miles north and head to Uncommon Ground in Edgewater. Why the hassle? Because Occult will put you in a very expansive, creative headspace, and Uncommon Ground curates their trademarked cocktails with sustainable environmental campaigns locally and abroad. There is also a rooftop garden.  (Another location in Lakeview. I did not visit that one, so I don’t know if there’s a rooftop garden there.) Holding happy hour here will help you see that anything is possible, and if you can imagine it, you just might make it come true.

Updates and revisions to locations from locals would be greatly welcomed in the comments section.

Stay warm, Chicago. Love always, The Tipsy Librarian

Alison Barker

Alison Barker

Freelance Writer at Nola Studiola
Alison Barker, or Ms. Barker to the legions of young minds she’s shaped during fourteen years as a primary, middle school and college teacher, is a writer and critic who currently lives in New Orleans. Her work has appeared in Switchback, Monkeybicycle, Fwriction: Review, Ravenna Press’ Anemone Sidecar, Front Porch, Columbia Journal of Art and Literature, dislocate. Fiction, nonfiction, and theater reviews appear in Bitch, Paste Magazine, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Reader, Rain Taxi, Bookslut, and soon in Los Angeles Review of Books. She enjoys new places and faces, indefatigably drawing connections between people, places, ideas, and good coffee.
Alison Barker
Alison Barker
Alison Barker