O’Gara & Wilson–an antiquarian bookstore and modest survivor of a battle that has left the bookselling industry badly wounded–has carved a unique place for itself in its community. Across the street from Powell’s bookstore on 57th Street, O’Gara & Wilson has a long heritage that can be traced back to 1882 when it was founded by a Mr. Hewitt to be a bookstore for rare and used books. Over the years the shop has been located and relocated around Chicago, responding to rising rents, fluctuating demand and displacements by more glittering shelves than its wooden bookcases can offer. At last settling in its current location in Hyde Park around fifteen years ago, it has been the regular haunt of booklovers from all walks of life. “It’s a weird little romantic place,” says Lydia Laurenson, a former employee who still maintains the bookstore’s blog. Yet despite the free-flowing phrase showered upon the adored shopkeeper, Wilson has again been drawing short straws, as technology blossoms and the bookselling industry wilts.
The meticulous apprentice of Joseph O’Gara, Wilson has nursed the bookstore for as long as many people can remember. “He’s got a real love for bookselling,” said Lydia, “He’s really made some sacrifices to keep it open. Bookstores have been closing left and right these days, it’s a testament to how much he has loved the store, keeping up with the times and taking losses himself in order to keep it open.” It seems that Wilson has been a devoted boss, bookseller and man, and indeed his unassuming romanticism rolls off him in the ounceful, as he pulls up a red leather chair in his beloved shop, adjusting his glasses in earnest preparation for this interview.
Chicago Weekly: How old is this shop? Who started it?
Wilson: Booksellers tend to be like gypsies, they have pretty much always led marginal existences. When rents rise, when neighborhoods gentrify and the rents go up the economics of the bookstore no longer work so booksellers move. Jerrold Nedwick booksellers (Jerry is who Joe O’Gara apprenticed under) had, I think, 6 or 8 locations in a 25-year period. The same thing happened with Joe O’Gara and we moved here 15 years ago after 23 years down the street at 1311 E. 57th Street.
CW: So over time through all its iterations O’Gara Wilson has always been an antiquarian bookstore? Or was it ever just a used bookstore?
Wilson: We call ourselves an “antiquarian and used bookstore” so as not to exclude anything. I am perhaps making an error trying to achieve something that can never be achieved, and trying to be all things to all people […] but I want to have rare Americana and I want to have dollar Agatha Christie paperbacks.
CW: Why did you rule out the idea of selling unused books?
Wilson: Because it’s so incredibly boring. For people who like old books, there’s a whole world of books. You’re talking about hundreds of years of production of books you’ve never imagined, never hoped to ever see. In the new book trade all you have is what the publishers are putting out that year, and it’s very predictable and you can get as many copies as you want. My kind of persona, and the personas of other people who become used booksellers become incredibly bored.
CW: How do you balance being a good businessman with stocking what you think is important?
Wilson: Well there has to be a correspondence between what you stock and what people are looking for. The basics are transported to you during your apprenticeship. Just being in a bookshop for a certain period of time and paying attention to what sells quickly, versus what sits on a shelf for six years, and ends up being discounted to at or below what you paid just to get rid of it, hones your perception. Bad books become invisible to you. The ones that jump into focus when you’re scanning a box or a basement or someone’s library shelf are ones you’ve had good experiences with.
CW: What got you started in the bookselling industry?
Wilson: When I was first starting the book trade I almost had an addiction to buying books. I had an attic room in my parents’ house, which I built shelves in. I found out that books could be bought fairly cheaply in resale stores like Salvation Army and Goodwill. I would go every Saturday and look at their new offerings. But I was on a limited budget so many times I would see books that I wasn’t particularly interested in, but I had a sense might still have some value because other people would be interested in them. So in order to finance the books that I wanted to keep, I would buy books I didn’t want and sell them to bookstores like Mr. O’Gara’s.
CW: How much of your collecting is based purely on aesthetics?
Wilson: Well there are some people that want it all, they want books that look nice in their living space, and that they’re interested in, and I think that’s a commendable way to approach book collecting. There was a philosopher called William Morris who started the arts and crafts movement in England, a reaction to the shoddy workmanship […] of machine made goods, who had a saying that I heard very early on in my twenties, “have nothing in your homes which you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful.” That’s one thing that induces people to come to a place like this.
CW: How’s the store been doing in light of the progression in the bookselling industry?
Wilson: I have no complaints if I’m doing poorly, it’s either because I’m not working hard enough or it means the world is changing in a way that doesn’t favor this type of work. You mentioned that a lot of people express loyalties and great fondness for this kind of place and I know its coming from their hearts.
CW: So you set prices based on what you think you can get for a book?
Wilson: The minimal we can do to keep us alive is sell [at 300%] of what we pay. The internet has acted as an ability for people to know all things. Prior to the internet you would go to your local bookstore and ask for a book you were looking for. Most of the time their answer to you would be no because there’re millions of out of print books. Eventually you might find a bookseller that had one and it might be a little bit more pricey, but you would jump and buy it. Now all this pent up demand for books that people can’t find is satisfied because they can find it online. Pent up demand brought people into bookshops, now people find books instantaneously on the internet.
CW: You’ve gone online as well though, haven’t you?
Wilson: Yes, we decided that if we were losing 10% of our business to the internet, we should make 10% of our sales on the internet. This has been incrementally increased over time. Now about 20-25% of our sales are on the internet. There are still a lot of people who love to browse, who love the serendipity of finding books they didn’t even know existed, the tactile adventure of being able to handle a book.
CW: Have you ever thought about maybe selling coffee, or having places for people to sit and read?
Wilson: For a period of time, I toyed with the idea. Next door we had a restaurant called CafÃ© Florian and out of neighborliness, I didn’t want to give away what my neighbors were trying to sell. On a couple of occasions I said to them that we’d be willing to take out a couple of bookcases and cut a counter (with the permission of the landlord) so people could buy their coffee through the window, but they were never interested in doing that.
CW: Have you ever found someone who could be your apprentice?
Wilson: I often think I probably should be looking. But then previous generations didn’t have change like we’re having now. I have one employee who has all the talent [to be my apprentice], all the good sense and all the enthusiasm, but I don’t know if I’d be doing him a favor if I convinced him to become a bookseller. I certainly would be very pleased and gratified if when I was done I could pass the torch on as it has been passed to me but bookselling is transforming into a completely different animal. I don’t know that there’re too many booksellers who are training apprentices right now because there aren’t too many young people who think of it as an exciting, viable way to make a living. I hope that turns around, I hope that there’re stores like this 100 years from now but things are changing so quickly it could go one way or the other.