For veteran booksellers Mary Mollman and Javier Ramirez, running their own shop was a dream — and on March 14, surrounded by hundreds of patrons and just as many balloons, they made it a reality, opening the doors at Madison Street Books after months of construction delays.
But the reverie didn’t last long. Two days later, as COVID-19 tore through Chicago, Mollman and Ramirez closed their storefront at 1127 West Madison Street, limiting sales to curbside pickup, local delivery, and online shipping. By week’s end, in cooperation with Gov. Pritzker’s March 20 shelter-in-place order, they’d pivoted to online-only, charging $1 for shipping nationwide. Customers who live nearby can also pick up their orders from a cart at the front door without walking inside.
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So far, Mollman and Ramirez have been able to weather the storm.
“[It’s] not the opening week we anticipated, but still people have been incredibly generous and thoughtful about spreading the word,” Mollman says. “Friends of friends from all over the country [are] placing book orders online with us, which has been tremendous.”
Inside the now-shuttered shop, Madison Street Books is spacious, with exposed brick and wall-to-wall industrial shelves carrying National Book Award winners and commercial bestsellers alike. Perusing those shelves, you’d also notice that the books are largely uncategorized.
“We don’t have genre sections,” Ramirez says. “Everything fiction is all one happy family. You’ll find literary fiction mixed in with horror, science fiction, fantasy, and mysteries. In the few days that we were open, our customers took to it in a positive way.”
The owners have also aimed to address issues they perceived while working at other bookshops. “We have poetry up by the front of the store,” Ramirez says. “I think a lot of stores relegate [it] to the back corners.”
Madison Street Books also boasts a substantial kids’ section and programming, including weekly concerts, or “toddler jams,” by Miss Dawn-Marie (now broadcast on Facebook Live). You’ll also find nonfiction and short story collections in their own sections.
For the two days it was open, the store’s design sparked a sense of wonder in customers, according to Mollman. “It’s a neat thing when people discover something that’s outside the realm of what they might normally read.”
Once the store reopens, Mollman and Ramirez will resume their robust slate of events, which includes two to three visits a week by both local and national authors. Even before the store’s grand opening, the space had been used for events promoting Jac Jemc’s False Bingo and Michael Zapata’s The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, among other new titles.
Finding the 1,500-foot space for Madison Street Books was a “happy accident,” says Ramirez, who met Mollman while both were working at The Book Stall in Winnetka several years ago. Mollman, who most recently worked at a children’s bookstore in Evanston, had been strolling West Loop with her husband last summer when she came upon a for-rent sign in a promising storefront. After touring the space, she signed a lease and immediately started looking for a business partner.
That search didn’t last long. “Javier came first to my mind,” she says. After all, he’s worked at beloved indie shops like Book Table in Oak Park, Seminary Co-op/57th Street Books, the Book Cellar, and City Lit since moving to Chicago 25 years to open a bookstore for Tower Records. (Asked to recite his resume, Ramirez simply lists the three major indies around Chicago that haven’t employed him.)
For Mollman, their location two blocks south of Randolph Street makes for a happy mix of residential and commercial traffic. "It’s sort of the edge of the residential area. Just a couple blocks north, things become even more commercial, whether it’s McDonald’s [Hamburger University] or Google or all of the restaurants on Fulton and Randolph. Right where we are is the borderline between the neighborhood and that area.”
Opening a bookstore in West Loop wouldn’t have been tenable a generation or two ago, says Mollman. When she was growing up in the city, the area was still largely industrial. But its recent influx of development and young families, paired with the lack of “a real community space” on Madison, makes it ripe for their shop, says Mollman.
“I think we have a good chance of partnering with the neighbors and becoming a solid root in the neighborhood.”