Business is brisk for indie booksellers as chains struggle

There's little question the recession is hitting book sellers, with Borders announcing last week it would close its flagship Magnificent Mile store.

But several miles north, and a bit further off the beaten path, a different story is unfolding.

At Ravenswood Used Books, owner Jim Mall says February is usually a difficult time for book stores. But even with the seasonal slump, his sales over the last few months have been about 20 percent above average.

"This Christmas, I enjoyed a stronger sales season than in years past," says Mall. "This month has been kind of up and down, but overall, I think it's been above average."

Owners of other Chicago independent bookstores say they, too, are bucking the bad economy because their stores offer charms that the large, brightly lit box store don't.

Hall's 600-square-foot store is filled to the ceiling with titles, creating an almost claustrophobic labyrinth of books.

"People go to Borders with a specific book in mind," says Megan Wheeler, who works with Mall. "People come here because it's kind of like a hunt." 

Books remain popular because they are relatively inexpensive gifts and self-treats, says Meg Smith of the American Booksellers Association, a national nonprofit trade association. Customers are especially on the prowl for paperbacks and used books, she says.

Myopic Books, located at 1564 N. Milwaukee Ave., reported steady sales from 2007 to 2008. Owner Joe Judd was generally confident the bad economy wouldn’t decrease his sales.

“If you read two books per week ... you will still be buying books,” he says.

Myopic Books, a Wicker Park institution for more than 18 years, owes some of its success to the viability of other locally owned business in the neighborhood, including Earwax Cafe and Reckless Records, which Judd says, “creates foot traffic that provides the vast majority of our business.”

“We couldn’t survive being the only interesting store on the block,” Judd says.

Smith, with the ABA, says stores that participated in the ABA’s IndieBound program have faired better than others, according to post holiday surveys.

IndieBound is a socially conscious program that appeals to customers who want to support local and independent shops.

Carroll Piper, who frequents Ravenswood Used Books, is one of them.

“I try to shop locally because I love my neighborhood,” says Piper of Lincoln Square.

~ Daily News staff writer Megan Cottrell contributed to this report