Over the years, the bookshop weathered the Great Depression and the e-reading boom, but in the end, the lure of lower costs in another city proved too tempting for the little bookstore that could.
After 131 years in Hyde Park, O'Gara & Wilson is moving to Chesterton, Ind.
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Bookshop owner Doug Wilson said the town of Chesterton, near the Indiana Dunes, won't charge him various business and inspection fees that he has had to pay in Chicago.
"When you see a light held out before you where you can get away from all that, it is incredibly tempting to run to it," said Wilson, 63.
On a recent afternoon, O'Gara & Wilson buzzed with excitement (as much as an antiquarian bookstore can buzz) as passers-by ambled into the store, moving through the old-fashioned shelves as they browsed. The store boasts about 40,000 books, ranging from a series of vellum-covered theological books dating to the 16th and 17th centuries and a retrospective history of Playboy Enterprises that features a swatch of Hugh Hefner's famous pajamas. Many notable people visited the store over the years. Among them: Saul Bellow, Yul Brynner and, most recently, Mick Jagger.
"I believe there is a place for a (brick and mortar) bookshop in the culture," Wilson said. "I believe there is probably a need for fewer of them. My mantra for many years has been if 10 years ago there was a place for 500 bookshops across the country and there is only enough interest or need for 50 now, it is my endeavor to be one of those 50."
Sitting in the front of the store, Wilson reminisced about his apprenticeship with Joseph O'Gara, the store's previous owner. O'Gara brought Wilson on as an apprentice in 1972 after noting his "nose for books."
"He taught me how to price books, how to recognize a good book, how to repair books, how to create an interesting environment in a shop, some place people will want to come back to," Wilson said. "What an apprenticeship does is enable you have survivability. To learn that you are going to make mistakes, but be advised about enough of them that your mistakes don't put you out of business."
Following that advice, Wilson is relocating in order to keep his doors open. He said the move will cut overhead by more than 50 percent.
Wilson had a store in Chesterton from 1991 to 1994 that he was forced to close, but he said he thinks the town's economy today is vibrant enough to support O'Gara & Wilson.
The store's Facebook page recently announced the move — prompting comments such as "devastating," "terrible" and "sad."
Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine and long-time customer of O'Gara & Wilson, wrote in an email that he visited the bookstore often "and bought many treasures, including poetry, Chicago-related books and the unexpected in general." Share added that he would often travel out of his way after work to visit the store.
"It was quiet, meditative, and clearly run, and patronized, by book lovers," he wrote. "We are not extinct, but it's hard to keep such a magical store going …. It's hard to imagine another place quite like it and with its distinctive history."
Bernie Doyle, Chesterton's town manager, welcomed news of the bookstore's relocation.
"In our electronic age of e-readers and instant access to communication, there is still a place for the traditional and ... a need for such a tangible connection to our past," Doyle wrote in an email.
Back at his Hyde Park store, two men in a gold SUV pulled up with a trunk full of books. Wilson took one look at the mostly well-worn paperbacks and out-of-date textbooks and knew these books were not for him.
"The Salvation Army and Goodwill (sell these types of books) for $1, and I can't make my living competing with Goodwill and Salvation Army," he told the men. "It used to be I would be able to help people in your situation, but I can't anymore. That is the real word on it."
Courtney Crowder covers the Chicago literary scene for Printers Row Journal.