Devereux Bowly passed away on Aug 6th, 2014, at age 71, due to injuries suffered in a fall. Dev was a long-time bookstore customer, but he was also the owner of the building at 1301 E 57th St in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood where our 57th Street Books is located. Dev was the co-op’s landlord for that store, but calling him that doesn’t even remotely do justice to the role he played in the history of our co-operative. I’d like to trace a little of the early history of 57th St Books, and in doing that highlight the part that Devereux played in book selling in our neighborhood over the past thirty years.
Dev called me at the old Seminary Co-op location in the fall of 1982 and asked if we could meet, as he had a proposal for the co-op. A few days later we met and Dev said he was the owner of the apartment building on the southeast corner of 57th and Kimbark and he hoped that the co-op might consider opening a bookstore in the basement of his building. I mentioned to Dev that there already was a small bookstore run by Helaine Staver occupying a portion of the basement, but he said he was not planning on renewing the lease for that store. He was looking for a bookseller that might want to operate a larger store, utilizing up to 4000 square feet, almost the entire basement, and offering a more wide ranging inventory. We agreed to meet at his building the next morning.
Dev showed me around the building, in the process pointing out that the basement was composed of a series of four distinct, non-connecting, rooms that began at the entrance on 57th St and ended at the alley that ran east-west behind the building. Dev said that if the co-op was interested in the space he would hire a contractor to connect the rooms in a way that would make them useable for retail, do whatever cleaning and other work that would be necessary to get the space ready, put in all-new electrical, construct a washroom, make the existing fireplace operational, and handle anything else that might come up in the rehabilitation of the space [An out of sequence note: one of the things that came up when breaking through the wall from the front room to the second room was the fact that the floors of the rooms were at significantly different levels. That caused some initial panic.]. The co-op would be responsible for design and buildout.
From that meeting on, Dev showed himself to be an enthusiastic, thoughtful, self-effacing yet genuinely unflagging advocate for the bookstore and the role he thought it could and should play in the neighborhood.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I don’t think any of us at the co-op had really thought about a second location before that call from Dev, but we were definitely interested in exploring the option. The proposed location was a very good one, on a commercial portion of 57th St with a lot of foot traffic, near the University but yet distinct from the campus. The questions we had to face were, of course, numerous, and we had to have reasonable answers to them before we could think about making a proposal to the co-op’s board. How could it make sense to run two stores just three blocks apart? Could we increase sales enough to handle the enormously increased costs of payroll, insurance, rent, utilities, and inventory, among other things? Could we make the stores distinct in a way that would encourage customers to shop at both and yet make each of them an attractive destination in itself? What were we not doing at the 5757 S University store that we could do in a way that the community would support at 1301 E 57th St?
We went to work to come up with honest and realistic answers. The stores would certainly have to have some overlap in inventory, but would have to “feel” different from one another both when customers first came in, and after they looked around for a while. The list of sections we could have on 57th St that we didn’t have on University Ave was easy to come up with, especially after all the suggestions Lab School teacher and book person nonpareil Bob Strang provided. The list was essentially the sections that were the heart and soul of most bookstores, with a Hyde Park twist. We would of course have a children’s section, a cookbook section, mysteries, science fiction, and travel, and every one of the sections would have to be great because our customers would both want them to be great and support them with their patronage if they were.
How would we design and build the shelves and fixtures? Everything at the first store was done in-house, with utility being paramount. We didn’t want anything fancy on 57th St—the focus should be on the books, not the fixtures—but we wanted to set a higher standard for quality and design than in the past.
And how would we get the money to bring this new place off?
Dev didn’t provide the answers to our questions, of course, but his deep knowledge of the neighborhood and freely given advice helped us see the way to make a clear proposal to the co-op board that we open a second location. The board discussed it over the course of three meetings, after each one wanting answers to more questions. Ultimately, the board said if we could arrange financing and negotiate with Dev a lease acceptable to the board we could go ahead and plan on opening a store by the fall of 1983.
The lease was negotiated between board member (and attorney) Claire Pensyl acting for the the co-op and Devereux Bowly. That lease is still the one in use, with some slight changes at each renewal. An example of the care Dev took in his portion of the lease is the section detailing the type of window glass we must use in the west-facing windows on Kimbark, an old, difficult-to-come-by translucent glass that lets light shine through faintly onto the sidewalk and doesn’t disturb what Dev saw as the leafy, quiet, residential character of the Avenue.
The design and construction of fixtures loomed as a real problem. I knew Howard Cohen who ran a beautiful, recently opened, used bookstore on Lincoln Ave near the Biograph Theater called Booksellers Row. The store was clean and well-lit, quite different from the usual outlet for used books in Chicago then. I asked Howard if he would give me the name of the person who built his shelves, and, surprisingly, he said no, but he would let the person know the co-op was interested in contacting him. Saturday afternoon a few days later Chip Devenport came into the co-op and said he was the person who did Booksellers Row, and he had heard I was interested in talking to him. I had known Chip for years, he had a couple of degrees from the University and, among other things, taught in the basic program.
When Chip said he would be interested in doing the design and build-out for us I was finally certain that Dev’s suggestion of a second location for the co-op had put the operation on the right track. Chip and his partner did an astoundingly good job for us, at a reasonable price, and all the while making very astute suggestions about ways to make the layout better for both customers and staff. Immediately after we opened the store people began asking where they could purchase bookcases of the sort we had, and those constant requests led to Chip’s opening 57th Street Bookcase and Cabinet http://57thstreetbookcases.com/, a business that is still thriving and has equipped thousands of homes and offices (and some other bookstores) with well designed and well made and well priced bookcases and other fixtures, accompanied by very good design advice.
But I’m again ahead of myself.
The financing (a $150,000 loan) was taken care of by the Hyde Park Bank after a 15 minute meeting in the President’s office, followed by a handshake. I had a very simple typed proposal, and the co-op had never borrowed before, but we had been a customer of the bank for twenty years. Hyde Park Bank at that stage was independent and locally owned.
Finding a person to manage the store was the last piece of the puzzle. That person had to know books, the neighborhood, the University, and the co- op, and have good ideas about what 57th Street Books should aim to be and that would be achievable with the limited financial resources the co-op had. Luckily for all of our customers, Rodney Powell was a co-op board member at the time and he unexpectedly said he might be willing to leave his then-current, quite interesting, job and be our initial manager at 57th Street Books. He set us on the right path from the very first day we opened, October 22, 1983, and although he has long since moved on to better things at the University of Chicago Press he is still a frequent customer at both stores.
Over the past thirty years, millions of books have been bought at 57th Street Books, several thousand authors have stopped by (Dev attended hundreds of author events there), and many thousands of young people have been helped to develop a love of reading by the books and booksellers at the store. None of this would have happened at the corner of 57th and Kimbark if Dev Bowly had not suggested that the co-op open a store in the basement of his building, and helped us do it.
Dev was an attorney with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago for most of his working life. One of the myriad people he helped there, Earl Jackson, become a very important, long-term part of the Seminary Co-op/57th Street Books world because of the Dev Bowly connection. Dev suggested I talk to Earl about regular cleaning projects at the stores, as that was Earl’s background at IIT. Earl was interested, and has been doing exquisite work for us three times a week for almost three decades. It’s hard to imagine the places operating smoothly without his work ethic, skill set, and combination of perceptive intelligence and winning personality.
Devereux was the author of The Poorhouse: Subsidized Housing in Chicago, he was a founder of the Hyde Park Historical Society. He was also the owner, and restorer, and genius behind, two beautiful inns near Lakeside, MI, The Gordon Beach Inn and Lakeside Inn http://www.lakesideinns.com/. My understanding from Dev was that the rent we paid at 57th St Books went toward the restoration of those inns, a true win-win situation. He was also one of the originators of the architectural tours given by what is now the Chicago Architecture Foundation, and a lead participant in several restoration projects in Hyde Park, South Shore, and Washington Park.
Dev was a great citizen of the City of Chicago and the Hyde Park neighborhood, and had a profound impact on the Seminary Co-op. There have been many talented people associated with the co-op’s stores over the years—customers, employees, board members, publisher’s representatives— and I plan on covering more of this history in the future. But for 57th Street Books, the story began with Devereux Bowly in 1982 and continued with him until just a few weeks ago.
Finely titled & gorgeously designed book of poetry coming next month from Alien vs. Predator author/UChicago grad/mad genius michaelrobbinspoet.
If you’ve bought kids’ books from us over the past few years, you’ve probably met our children’s buyer Dominique. You know, the friendly, enthusiastic one who can always help you find just what you’re looking for? That’s her. Anyway, Langston Hughes Elementary asked Dominique to help them build their school library, and we got most of the order in today. The books she chose were too beautiful not to photograph and share with you, so here are just a few of the hundreds she selected. Anyone else need a hand putting together a killer collection?
Ernest Hemingway said it was awfully easy to be hardboiled during the day, but I think Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe would beg to differ. Those cats and their brethren found trouble no matter where the sun was in the sky, and their sixth senses for sin are why we still love them and think they’re cool over a half century later. Noir literature was, of course, also the basis for some of the most beautifully shot and persistantly hip films known to man, and, thanks to some presses with excellent taste, books full of those iconic images are now stocked on our shelves. Because of its morally and stylistically complex exploration of the darkest sides of modern life, noir literature and film have also spawned a whole field of criticism. Anyway, in the wake of noir femme fatale Lauren Bacall’s death, and inspired by the sultry Chicago summer, here’s a collection of some of our finest offerings in noir fiction, criticism, and art, from curbsidesplendor, akashicbooks, overlookpress, versobooks and more. Bang, bang.
Complete list/ordering info here.
We must really like you all or something, because we are practically *giving* books away these days…
Please welcome remainders to our collection, great books at ridiculously low prices sure to blow. your. mind. We’ll get more if you want us to, but for now be sure to read your Ballard and Bolaño!
This week in newness (a sampler):
nyrbclassics double whammy: Augustus from Stoner author John Williams PLUS a kids’ book translated by Lydia Davis
UChicago prof Bruce Lincoln examines the intersection of myth and history in the founding of the state in Between History & Myth
Chicago’s finest curbsidesplendor drops a debut story collection from Ryan Kenealy
Thanks to hyperboleandahalf, your 2015 just got a whole lot brighter.
Out of the vaults & into your hands, V.1: part of the fun of our ongoing Sidewalk Sale is digging through boxes and stumbling upon treasures, oddities, and everything in between. We’ll be posting some of our favorites and would welcome your participation, too, so send us a picture of your best (or strangest) find and we’ll add it to the mix. For now, a quick reminder that all Sidewalk Sale books are $10/hardcover & $5/paperback, with prices dropping to $8 and $4 respectively this Saturday. And, without further ado: a cover that conflates business success with physical strength, plus a book that everyone with a full spam folder wishes they’d thought to write.
Yo Stoner fans, looky what’s about to drop from nyrbclassics!
Order yours here.
57thstreetbooks it’s been too long
We offer much better vacation deals than Kayak.
It’s happening, folks. Tell your mothers, your brothers, your Levinasian Other (whatever that means). Saturday, August 16th through ??, we’ll be running a massive sidewalk sale at both locations. Prices will drop week by week, the selection of books will change hour by hour, so come early, come often, and get booky with it.
Wondering what’s new in book world? Well, some guy named Murakami put out a new book, kind of under the radar. Jean Baudrillard, aka the Tupac of critical theory, posthumously dropped another book. Karin Fossum continues to thrill. And twodollarradio keeps being too loud to ignore. Checkitout.