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Uncharted Books’ Tanner McSwain Wants to be the Gertrude Stein of Logan Square

The secondhand bookseller toasts four years of business (and shares his 10 most popular titles).

Tanner McSwain   Photo: Angelo Fiore

In 2010, the recession in full swing, Borders bookstores were dropping like flies. That was bad news for Tanner McSwain, a creative writing grad working in publishing while he moonlighted massage school. So bad, in fact, that he had a nutty idea: Why not open his own bookstore?

“I realized it’s way less expensive to run a used bookstore than a Borders,” says McSwain, sitting now in Uncharted Books, the cozy secondhand book shop he opened in 2012. “There’s just less overhead.” Since its incubation, McSwain’s concept has snowballed past fiscal pragmatism: “The focus is to be a literary used book store. I want Uncharted to be a haven for the lit scene.”

On most days, it is. Kitty-corner to the Logan Square blue line, McSwain has built a space for artists, locals, and Logan Square’s ballooning lit community. He hosts book intake on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesday is game night. The rest of the week is filled with open mikes, book clubs, and even a comedy show, Congrats on Your Success, which packs more than 100 into McSwain’s 2,300 square foot space.

McSwain’s business model, he says, is inspired by that of Gertrude Stein. “She owned this apartment that all of these great luminaries came through. She was a positive influence on a lot of greats.” To that end, McSwain is trying to carve out his own force of influence. “My favorite thing about working here is when people ask for personal book recommendations based on the X, Y, and Z authors they’re into. That’s something you can’t really get online.”

Until now. Below are ten titles the lit host of Logan is constantly pulling off his shelves.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

By Jon Ronson

“It’s kind of harrowing. I enjoy a good This American Life-style report. There’s this weird phenomenon of bringing back public shaming since it went away in the 1800s. Jon Ronson interviewed this 4chan troll and wild Texas judges who have sentenced people humiliation.”

Argonauts

By Maggie Nelson

“I like a book that’s genre bending. It’s sort of a memoir, lit theory, and a critique of various intellects. It’s about love and gender and sex in the modern world. It’s a big idea book—my favorite book of last year, for sure.”

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

By Sarah Vowell

“I don’t know much about the battle of Lafayette or the American Revolution, but all of Sarah Vowell’s stuff is interesting, informative, and hilarious. She makes nonfiction read like a novel. There’s this great little sub plot about the dude who wrote The Barber of Seville.”

No One Belongs Here More Than You

By Miranda July

“I read this short story collection about 10 years ago when I was in college. There’s one story told in second person about the day that everyone reveals to you that everything was a big joke, but that everything is going to turn out okay. I just love Miranda July’s outlook. Everything is this performing tenderness, even just regular, everyday occurrences. I love her movies too, and the app she made with Carol Fletcher.”

Catch-22

By Joseph Heller

“It’s the funniest book I’ve ever read by a large margin, and I love a good anti-war satire. I remember reading it for the first time in high school and literally falling out of bed laughing. I sure wish it weren’t still so resonant today, but there you have it.”

Treasure Island

By Robert Louis Stevenson

“Nearly everything I love to read and write is adventurous fiction, and this book is why. I remember Treasure Island being read to me as a child, and then building stories with Legos and action figures to try to capture that same feeling of wonder and creation. It’s primarily read by kids, but it still holds up if you read it as an adult. I consider it the Platonic ideal of an adventure story: perfectly paced, just the right blend of archetypes and surprises that pay off in immensely satisfying ways.”

American Gods

By Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is my favorite living writer, and I’d pick American Gods as my favorite of his books. I love a good genre-bender and I’ve always been fascinated by mythology and religion. He’s my favorite compiler of influences, sucking in all the good stuff about Bradbury and Asimov and Arthur Conan Doyle and the Brothers Grimm and spitting out something that still manages to be unique and revolutionary. His ubiquity is well deserved.”

Just Kids

By Patti Smith

“I’m a sucker for rock and roll memoirs and biographies, and hers is the most tender and poetic I’ve come across. It helps that she’s had an objectively poetic and tender life. I haven’t picked up her followup, M Train, but it’s at the top of my list. This is my favorite memoir. I would have loved to be in New York in the 60s, or Paris in the 20s.”

One Hundred Years of Solitude

By Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude was my favorite book for a lot of years. It was the first time I remember thinking ‘Holy cow, I had no idea writing was allowed to be like this.’ So much of what we take for granted in stylistic, imaginative, literary fiction today was pioneered by guys like Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. The scope of Solitude hits my sweet spot.”

Tender Buttons

By Gertrude Stein

“A few years ago I read Tender Buttons and felt that I didn’t really need to read much more poetry because there’s not ever going to be anything better than this. I love Gertrude Stein’s writing, persona, and philosophy on life. [As I’ve said,] I’m trying to be a little bit of a Logan Square Gertrude Stein. She was a positive influence on a lot of greats. I don’t know if we have a Hemingway or a Picasso through here yet, but we might. I want to keep encouraging people and help people find a way to get their work to more people and expose them to new work and expose them to other people’s work. Gertrude Stein has always been one of my role models.”

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