The generic nature of chain stores is much the same. McDonaldsland and Wal-Martland are their own places no matter where they are. Which is why, if you want to actually know the place you’re visiting (or, for that matter, the place you’re living), it’s necessary to step outside of the solacing predictability and climate-controlled comfort of chains and into the bending backways and unknown sidestreets to sample local fare. The daunting problem, of course, is that outside of the regimented world of chain stores you never know exactly what you’re going to find—food poisoning or a local delicacy, dusty junk or a hidden gem, ripoffs or bargains of a lifetime. But daring, even modest daring, is the difference between a tourist and a traveller—and it’s possible to live your whole life as a tourist, even if you never leave your home town.
These thoughts come after a visit to some friends in Chicago, during which I visited Quimby’s, a famed indie bookstore in the city’s amazing Wicker Park area. Great indie bookstores differ from one another almost as much as they differ from the chain bookstores they compete with. If the chain stores are all wearing buttondowns and Dockers, indies can wear anything from leather and tongue studs to paisleys and bell bottoms. I’m not quite sure in what I’d dress The Bookshelf. Given the wonderfully motley crew that inhabits the store, its closet would be a bulging mishmash, but it’d be a challenge to find a blue tie or a Manolo pump in the mix.
Quimby’s definitely tends toward studs and rings and is famous for its collection of cutting-edge comics, magazines, and, most notably, hand-made zines. The place is like a primordial soup of literature. Almost all of the zines and a good number of the comics and books are by unknowns and are either self-published or put out by micropresses. Some of them will no doubt someday be picked up by major publishing houses and repackaged as the next bleeding edge. But in situ there’s no one to tell you what’s good and what’s bad, what’s worth reading and what’s a waste of time. The browser is in the uncomfortable position of having to flip through each work and actually exercise his or her own aesthetic judgement without the guiding hands of publishers, editors, or critics—to be, in another words, a traveller through books rather than a tourist. To varying degrees and in various ways, I suppose that’s what all good indie bookstores do.