The Neighborhood Bookstore

The character of a neighborhood can be read in its shops. As neighborhoods change, and new populations move in, stores and restaurants are built to cater to them. As South Asian populations replaced the Russian Jews who had settled in the area around Devon Avenue, Indian restaurants and groceries proliferated. Now there are only hints of the area’s previous residents: a Russian Language bookstore here, or the sign of a former kosher butcher, now selling halal lamb. Shops define the kinds of experiences one can have in a neighborhood, and often the products and services they offer can be a crucial link to a cultural community for the people who make it their home. They enliven local life, turning neighborhoods into destinations.

The Version Fest is very conscious of the community building character of retail. A month-long celebration of the Bridgeport neighborhood, which it calls “The Community of the Future,” the festival includes a variety of events hosted by local businesses, as well as “pop-up shops” like Enoch’s Donuts, and its neighbor, Paratext Books. Located just off Halsted at 751 W. 32nd Street, not far from the Sox-35th Redline stop, Paratext offers an eclectic mix of used books and local “zines”, as well as a variety of workshops. Their collection is small, but broad, filled with eclectic selections which reward the careful browser. The greatest virtue of a used bookstore is not that you can find what you want for less–that’s the benefit domain of Amazon.  The virtue of a used bookstore is that you can find things you weren’t even aware you were looking for. For example, I left Paratext books with “Mount-A-Fish,” an illustrated guide to the art of stuffing fish for ornamental purposes, put out by a Lombard taxidermist.

But Paratext is not merely a bookstore. Its operators–Katy Olson, Ali Fezer, Marian Frost, Josh Hanssen, and Diego Arispe-Bazan–intend it to serve as a community space, and they have offered a variety of workshops and activities, ranging from a bookbinding clinic to children’s dance and storytelling lessons on the weekends. Paratext also seeks to offer essential services which the city has cut back on. Due to budget constraints, Chicago libraries have reduced their hours drastically: on some days they are open from one to five. This causes problems for working residents, who are unable to use the libraries in the evenings.

Paratext is open when the local libraries are closed, and hopes to eventually supplement their services, offering computer access and training courses to allow locals residents to access the internet and email, as well as accomplish tasks as simple as typing up a resume. Paratext is also intended as a place that parents can take their children during the day, and will provide a variety of activities coordinated by Katy, who is trained in early childhood education.  This too fills a gap in city services: Melinda, a Bridgeport resident, points out that although the local park district offers a day camp, it is expensive enough to be out of reach for many.

Paratext is also intended as a space for discussion, and they held an open forum on gentrification. On May 23, I attended another event, called “Remembering N.A.T.O”, intended as a discussion of the protests around the Summit. The conversation ranged widely, from the “Nato 3,” the alleged “terrorists” who were arrested just down the street, to the actions of the Black Bloc, and the use of force by police.  Aside from me, all of the participants were from the area, and not all were newcomers:  Dave was a long term resident who told us about his distaste for Soviet Union, formed on a trip to the USSR to perform as part of an orchestra. The space does not, as some critics might charge, cater to new residents, but has a much broader appeal. All these services are subsidized by the consumers who come to buy books on the weekend, allowing the shop to stay open during the week as a space where it is not necessary to pay in order to participate.

There has been some controversy over Version Fest and its relation to the community: the “East Bridgeport Communists” posted a letter which condemns it as the fifth column of gentrification. However, after speaking to the operators, it is clear that this charge is unfair. The store is attempting to bridge the gap between younger “hipsters” attracted to the neighborhood by its low rents, and long-term residents, by offering things which appeal to both groups. Although initially intended to be temporary, the store hopes to generate enough business to remain open as a new kind of space, one which seeks to overcome some of the issues which have accompanied the process of “gentrification” in the past.