A year ago, chattering families filled the seemingly never-ending rooms of Hyde Park’s 57th Street Books. Children carefully ran around the toy-scattered floors, grabbing books from overflowing shelves. Books precisely positioned in the display windows piqued the interest of passersby and drew them into the cozy basement bookstore.
Now the rooms sit empty, except for a few workers, who carefully arrange books by category on shelves to speed up the packing process. As online orders come in, the books come off the shelves and move to the display windows, but not to draw people into the store. Their purpose is strictly functional — what used to be book displays are now shelves covered with packing supplies to prepare the books for shipping.
Due to COVID-19, local bookstores like 57th Street Books have been challenged to maintain sales while continuing to foster a sense of community online.
Originally founded by University of Chicago students as part of the Seminary Co-op, 57th Street Books has always been a hub for the University community. While it remains part of the Seminary Co-op today, 57th Street Books became a non-profit organization in 2019 with the goal of becoming more accessible to the Hyde Park community at large.
“We really wanted to serve a wider community than just academics,” Bryce Lucas, store manager, said. “We are really entrenched in the community, as are the people we serve, so our goal is to mirror the needs and interests of Hyde Park residents.”
A large part of serving the community in the past has been hosting events and speakers.
“We’ve always had a robust events schedule,” Mr. Lucas said. “We were running around 500-700 events a year, usually more than one a day.”
The struggle for this bookstore has been translating these events and the overall browsing experience online. To do this, they have begun hosting speakers and story times over Zoom.
While the city of Chicago is not currently mandating the closure of bookstores, 57th Street Books has found that the costs of re-opening to the public would outweigh the benefits.
“In being a fully online store, we have been able to receive and fulfill a tremendous amount of online orders,” said Mr. Lucas. “We feel that we are best able to serve our community in our current state of being closed to the public without needing to take on unnecessary risk to employee health.”
57th Street Books plans to re-open to the public when in-store shopping will exceed online demand. Mr. Lucas says that while keeping an online business model would likely be sustainable, it would fail to fulfill the mission of 57th Street Books.
“We are committed to providing an in-person browsing experience,” Mr. Lucas said. “If we turned fully toward being an online store indefinitely, we would not be fulfilling a crucial part of who we are.”
U-High senior Julia Antinescu grew up in Hyde Park, and spent many afternoons at 57th Street Books.
“When bookstores are switched to this online format, the magic kind of goes away,” Julia said. “You can’t really browse around. You can’t sit and read part of a book to see if you’ll like it. No matter how hard you try, the whole experience will be different.”
While the bookstore has undergone some physical changes, the mentality of the workers has remained the same.
“In a literal sense, we’ve become a warehouse. All our displays are cleared, we’ve changed the layout of the store, even our philosophy section has been changed into a shipping station,” Mr. Lucas said. “But our spirit hasn’t changed. We still exist together as curious people, and try to encourage that curiosity in others.”
To inspire this curiosity, 57th Street Books has been working to expand outreach.
“We’ve published interactive booklets on our website and stuck holiday guides in the Chicago Tribune,” said Mr. Lucas. “We’ve also set up curbside pickup and we’re always available by phone to help shoppers who struggle to navigate our website.”
The staff’s proactive approach seems to be working. In addition to increasing their readership across Chicagoland, their new mainly online platform has reinvigorated the international community affiliated with the university.
“We’ve reframed the focus of our international audience to reach those members of our community who can’t come into the store as often,” Mr. Lucas said. “We’ve become the neighborhood bookstore for many people who don’t even live in Chicago.”
Despite the challenges they are currently facing, 57th Street Books has no intention of shutting down.
“We are here because we want to be and because people want us to be,” Mr. Lucas said. “We will continue to grow the community because we are a part of it.”
This story was updated with additional information after a request from a reader.