Mary Gibbons and Aaron Lippelt have been dreaming up a bookstore for years—everyone who’s into books does, he says. Right now, Pilsen Community Books is one loft, two storage units, an unfinished storefront, and a very beautiful Instagram. They’re hoping that’s the start of a bookshop for the digital age.
The team are both alumni of literacy org and bookstore Open Books, but in striking out on their own, they made the jump out of non-profit waters. “Fundraising isn’t our specialty,” says Gibbons, “We know how to make money selling books.” Still, donations flow freely in and out—a hefty chunk of their stock comes from friends purging personal libraries, and they’ve already started delivering stacks to local classrooms.
For now, the books are processed in a loft on Halsted, which opens up to browsers during Pilsen’s 2nd Fridays Gallery Nights. Vintage paperbacks take up a wall, arranged with a curatorial eye: decades-old sci-fi, a maybe-out-of-date Sears primer on electrical wiring (subhead: “You can do great things!”). On shelves built from old bleachers sits everything from an old hardback Ulysses to New Moon. Eventually, they’ll sell new, used, and small press. “Neither of us has anything against Twilight,” says Lippelt, “We want to have everything for everyone.”
Their permanent home, a storefront on 18th Street, will pack books floor to twelve-foot ceilings, with a few old rolling library ladders keeping titles in reach. They keep hearing the space will be ready in two to three weeks. Lippelt says they’ve already signed a ten year lease—“They’ve just gotta give us the keys.”
While the brick and mortar operation takes shape, the shop’s online operation is already busy. Up and running since this May, their Instagram highlights a mix of progress updates and pretty covers, the latter of which are often snatched up by commenters looking to buy. Those sales were accidental, Gibbons says, but eventually their full inventory will be available for online browsers.
On the less photogenic end of the online-spectrum, the loft acts as a processing center for the donated titles, mostly textbooks, that they sell and ship via Amazon. Such a wide market makes those books sellable, if not ‘grammable. Others aren’t. The back of the loft has full boxes awaiting recycling: marked up, mildewed, or microwave-based cookbooks. “Some books,” Lippelt says, “no one wants to buy.”
For the rest, though, counting online channels and dual locations make five different ways this indie shop can sell you a book. That hybrid model, equal parts online and off, marks an intentional departure from most of the shop’s precursors. The sort of fond gripes Lippelt and Gibbons describe with a range of bookstore models will be familiar to browsers: the crowded used stores that ensure a musty treasure hunt; the antiquarian specialists whose rare finds are priced for rare customers; the slick, curated shops that feel more like museums than anything else. “I think bookstores have been slow to move with the times,” Gibbons says. They’re hoping to combine the warm nostalgia of a classic bookstore with a well-groomed selection, accessible pricing, and a robust online business.
Still at soon-to-open status, the team is already talking expansion: literacy programs they want to run, space they want to fill, resources for parents and educators (both of their spouses are teachers). In the meantime, the Instagram is busy, and on 2nd Fridays, a stream of customers is funding that vision, one carefully wrapped copy of The World of Flying Saucers at a time.
Pilsen Community Books will be open Friday, August 14, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at 1932 S. Halsted, Suite 206.