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"Life and times of a legendary Chicagoland bookseller..."

Howard Cohen and Books – A Love Story

Howard began his bookselling career in the 1960s at a store older residents will remember – Kroch's & Brentano's on State Street, at that time the largest bookstore in Chicago. But that was just the beginning.

Chicago

Howard founded Booksellers Row in the late 1970s, on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. Those were the heady days of Lincoln Park s intellectual, eclectic renaissance – readers and book-lovers filled neighborhood streets, rents were reasonable, and live music, good food & interesting arts programming at the Biograph Theater made Lincoln Avenue THE hip street.

Old-time customers may even remember the original location, at 2511 North Lincoln and its former faces, John's Bookstore followed by Second-Hand Rose. Howard Cohen brought fresh stock into the old shelves in November, 1978, and named his new enterprise Booksellers Row, after the old-time Chicago book neighborhood downtown.

That first winter was a doozie – that was February 1979, the year we had the huge snow – and Howard stuck balloons on top of the six-foot snowbanks, with arrows pointing "This Way To Knowledge =>"

Three years later the store relocated a block down the street, to 2445, where it remained for another 18 years. (Periwinkle restaurant moved into the 2511 space, by the way, another lamented former glory of Lincoln Avenue!) The 2445 Lincoln store was known for its rolling wooden ladders and amazingly knowledgeable staff. It was also perhaps the best-organized used bookstore on the planet!

Lincoln Avenue was a great book street. At various times, neighbors Guild Books, The Children's Bookstore, Dan Behnke and Powell's Bookstore all operated within a few blocks. Readers found anything they needed in a single shopping trip.

Booksellers Row also opened branches on South Michigan Avenue & Milwaukee Avenue. Through all three locations, countless books found their rightful owners and hundreds of individual collections grew.

Many old customers will remember Howard wearing baby Jeremy or Laura in the Snuggli behind the counter, while pricing books or ringing up sales (with that pencil behind his ear!).

Times changed, and so did the book business. Lincoln Avenue lost its bookstores, one by one. The three Booksellers Row stores are now history – though they live on in memory and across countless Chicagoland shelves. That is shelves, quite literally – for many of our favorite customers bought the oak, pine and cherry book-cases for their own libraries when we finally closed our doors! That thought warms our hearts.

Evanston

Many Evanston book-buyers will remember Booknook Parnassus, owned and run by Connie Reuveni (Dockterman). Connie first worked for Howard, way back when in the early days of Booksellers Row – then branched out independently. Named by Connie for the Christopher Morley novel about a traveling bookseller, Booknook Parnassus started out on Clark Street in Evanston , then moved to the corner of Foster & Maple a few years later.

Those were the late, great times of the irreplaceable Great Expectations Bookstore, an Evanston institution for decades. The neighborhood boasted other booksellers too: Europa and Richard Barnes& Loyal customers fondly remember Connie's delight in social and political discussions, her passion for Judaica and philosophy, and her pleasure in the eccentric and eclectic.

Again, times changed. When she became ill, Connie asked her old friend Howard to manage her store for her – though not the cats! Having closed his own stores by then, he was glad to oblige. After her death, Howard followed her wish by keeping the bookselling tradition going.

Appropriately renamed Howard's Books, the store has been building quality inventory and customers, while keeping Connie's original friendly and quirky neighborhood feel. Many former Booksellers Row customers have been delighted to discover this reincarnation of their favorite old bookstore (and bookseller)!

Howard soon realized that the books needed to "pay their shelf rent," – and devised the Ongoing Sale philosophy of pricing. Under the penciled price, every book has the month and year noted. If it's been in the store more than a year, it's yours for half the marked price. It works for everyone – keeping the inventory fresh, and releasing a steady stream of bargains all year long. If you're not a regular, you're missing great deals!

The rise of the Internet has opened up the New Arrivals table and the more unusual collector's items to a far wider circle of buyers. A selection of the inventory is now listed online – see the inventory page for details.

And beyond

Howard has seen dramatic changes in his 40 years of bookselling – winnowing of neighborhood shops, the rise of mega-chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble, the growing dominance of online shopping, and the emergence of e-books.

"I'm a horse-and-buggy man in the age of the automobile," he says. And now, "there just isn't enough general business to keep the doors open." He announced that he would close the store in early 2016, moving his operations online-only.

But he will miss his regular customers. Buyers of secondhand books "are a special breed," says Howard's wife, Alison James, his longtime partner in the business. "They love to handle books, to browse through their favorite subject, or the new-arrivals tables, and see what's turned up since their last visit."

"The Internet has revolutionized everything," James muses. "We haven't begun to catch up with what we've gained – and lost – as a result."

And Howard's regular customers will miss him. Here's what a few of them said.

 

I have shopped at Howard's (Books) on Lincoln Avenue, Michigan Avenue, and at the Evanston location for over thirty years. At least a quarter of my extensive book collection originated in one of Howard's stores. As good a deal as the books were, Howard himself was a better deal.

We discussed a variety of subjects from animals, books, movies, theater (me), Chicago, social mores (with other customers), food (Howard), and the decline of the book industry. Howard and I are the same age Ė alright, I'm six months older and wiser.

I'll miss Howard and Alison more than I'll miss the books. You can shop at other locations. You canít find other friends youíve known for over thirty years.

Tony Thomas,
A reader (and one of the original stockholders)

 

I'm truly sorry that Howard is closing the store, although I'm not enormously surprised. I've thought of it as much more than just a bookstore - it has been a place to socialize, and very often a great place to get recommendations of new or obscure restaurants to try! Often I'd learn about other things such as rare birds that had been sighted somewhere along the Lake, or hear stories about old Chicago neighborhoods.

When I came into the store, Howard would frequently point out a new, or newly acquired, book he had on Chicago history, or architectural history, or something else that he knew was of interest to me, and quite often it was something that I hadn't been aware of but decided that I needed to buy. That of course is the great advantage of a brick-and-morter bookstore: you find books that you didn't know you needed. Online is ok for looking for something that you already know about but I don't think it can replace REAL bookstores. And however good an online dealer is, they don't know you as a person.

Howard's Books has been a very important part of my community, and it will be greatly missed.

Robert C Michaelson,
former Northwestern University head librarian

 

Howard Cohen has been one of the central figures in the Chicagoland bookselling community since the 1960s. I would judge that at least half of my success comes from ideas that I've stolen from Howard over the years. Not a month goes by that I don't tell an employee or a customer at least one story about Howard. My time with him at Booksellers Row on Lincoln Avenue in the early 1990s built the foundation of my career. It is hard to imagine the Chicagoland bookselling scene without him in it.

Jason Smith,
co-owner of The Book Table, Oak Park

 

I am genuinely saddened that this refuge of learning, camaraderie, decades of a bibliopole's knowledge and book mites will no longer be available to us except in the dehumanized abstracted virtual realm. What we will lose is not only the browsing that opens a whole new world of interest, but the personality behind that chaotic book crowded desk.

Howard is one of the last of a kind that is irreplaceable to us all. Especially to me, the Thursdays that Howard tolerated my presence , he will never really know how important that relief from my concerns and his kind, understanding friendship and shelter was to me.

Longtime customer Will Suther

 

Quite a moment – I can only imagine all the emotions. It is poignant for Howard] no doubt, but so too for the community... and our society at large.

I feel the ache of change.

This is a life's work that brings something so intangible to our lives – a pace and a soul so intangible we've forgotten how to continue valuing it. That speaks a lot to who [Howard and Alison] are, and I'm proud to know them and to have been in their bookstore.

Brianna Booth,
A friend of the bookstore

 

In the late sixties, I was a buyer at Barbara's Bookstore on Chicago's Wells Street, in the Old Town area. Howard Cohen was a publisher's rep, and that's when we met. Little did I know that Howard would play such an important role in the book world of Chicago. A decade later, Beth and I were about to start up our mail-order used and rare book business, and by then, Howard had already opened Chicago's best used bookstore. We think of those days as Chicago's best book days, and Howard was the major star in that sky. Through the years, weve always admired his continuing presence in the book industry. His web presence will continue that great tradition, I'm sure.

Paul & Beth Garon,
Beasley Books

We want to thank all our customers who made Howard's Books, and the bookstores that came before it, such special destinations throughout the years. We will miss your visits, friends.

Read about Howard's Books: The Daily NorthwesternEvanston Patch