Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Favorite Things in Hyde Park: Powell's Books

My recent favorite things posts have focused a lot on restaurants and grocers in Hyde Park. This wasn't intentional per se, but I'm a foody and want to show folks Hyde Park has more than they might expect in that department. I definitely have more to say about food and dining in the neighborhood, but I've been overlooking some other great aspects of Hyde Park and want to give them their moment in the spotlight.

With that being said, I'm planning to focus some of my upcoming Favorite Things posts on one of Hyde Park's major claims to fame-- its diverse array of new, used, and antiquarian book stores. For those who are less familiar with the area, Hyde Park is home to several long-standing and nationally well-known Chicago bookselling institutions including 57th Street Books/Seminary Co-op Bookstore, Powell's Books, and O'Gara & Wilson Book Sellers, not to mention our nice but run-of-the-mill Borders and Barnes and Noble store. All of these shops are within a few blocks of each other--most of the same small stretch of 57th-- and each has a unique niche and vibe. I confess, I'm almost as much of a bookstore junky as I am a foody, so bear with me.

This week's featured spot is Powell's Books (1501 E. 57th-- just west of the train tracks, a couple blocks from the museum). Powell's specializes in used, rare, and "academic and scholarly" books. They even have what looks like a mini museum/gallery of rare special edition books from as early as the 1700s. If you're not into academia or antiquarian book collecting, though, don't worry, they also have a big selection of used fiction, comics, art and design books, not to mention all kinds of neat coffee-table-type books (great for last minute holiday gifts!) .

What makes this bookstore so distinctive and fun is that it's also kind of a hang out for locals and a destination spot for Chicagoans from other parts of the city. Unlike most small, independent book shops, Powell's is open until 11PM every night of the week which means people drop in after diner or even on their way out for drinks. I was there once on a Friday night at 10ish and there was actually a young couple there on what seemed to be a first date and, believe it or not, I'm pretty sure they weren't U of C students, as neither appeared to know the area or the store well (I admit, I was eavesdropping a little...). After the couple wandered around the shop for a while, the date ended with the guy buying his date a heavy, rare law encyclopedia. Extremely nerdy? Maybe...but also representative of the store and the neighborhood's quirky vibe.

There is certainly a time and a place for Amazon.com, Borders, and Barnes & Noble, but there is nothing like meandering through walls and walls of books without looking for anything in particular. There aren't many places like Powell's left in the city, and the few that are left really need our support. So, I urge you to check out Powell's next time you're nearby....and maybe even bring a date.

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