After-words bookstore owner shares how she got started

By Areeba Shah
Medill Reports

Beverly Dvorkin, owner of After-words in River North, discovered her love for stories as a toddler. At 15, she got her first job at a bookstore and edited her high school newspaper. She spent a semester abroad in London during college and wrote for City Limits, a feminist magazine.

After living in Boston, Washington, D.C., and London, Dvorkin returned to Chicago at 25 to fulfill her dream of opening her very own bookstore in May of 1997.  Over two decades later, After-words remains one of the few independent bookstores left in Chicago.

How old were you when you first recognized your love for writing?

Oh, God, I don’t remember a time when I didn’t feel that. My mother likes to tell a story when I was like a year and a half old, and we had gone to visit my grandfather at the hospital. She put me down in the waiting room with one of my favorite books that she read to me all the time. It’s called “Snow-White and Rose-Red.” She said I entertained the whole waiting room because I sat in the chair and read the book with her. I had memorized every word she said to me, and I knew where the page turned to. So, I guess that kind of love of words and books was always me.

How did you get started in writing?

I think I was always interested in writing, but I never was a creative writer in that sense. But I always could put words together, and I enjoyed finding the best way to say things. I still do. It’s what draws me to literature, too, because there are so many books that I look at, and I’m in awe of, you know, how well the writers are able to draw words together, and I actually have a physical sensation when I see well put together things.

When you were in high school, did you have an idea of which direction you wanted to take your life then?

Not at all. I was accepted at Boston University. I went into school as a history major. Eventually, I became a double major, and did history and journalism. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I graduated. I worked at the Smithsonian as an intern. I was making photocopies and helping with mailings. I was doing courtroom beat reporting for a local chain of papers outside of D.C. in suburban Maryland. For the amount of time I was putting in, it was getting very difficult to justify that [low pay]. I decided that at some point as I was working in bookstores to make ends meet.

What happened after that?

I was working for Crown Bookstore after I left the used bookstore (a book store that sold used books). The owner of Second Story Books had an amazing collection of books. I learned about evaluating books and editions from him. He was half blind, but he could literally pick up a book and tell you what year it was from the way the paper felt and the books smelled. He would usually be within like five years. At this point, I can’t do that, but I can probably tell you within the 20-year frame.

How did you start this bookstore?

So, I was working in D.C., and I took the full-time job with Crown bookstore. I guess while I wasn’t really paying attention, the truth is that bookstores became my career as opposed to journalism. It wasn’t because I didn’t like writing. It was because I realized that I could have a real life in books and in promoting other people’s writing. Then, I took a job as manager of this party store in Virginia, where I ended up working for almost three years.  I didn’t hate the stuff I was selling, but I had zero passion for it. I was saving money because I was being paid too much. One day, my dad gave me a call. He had purchased a property in River North in Chicago. The next time I was in town, I came and looked at it. We always joked when I was 15, that one day, I’d own a bookstore, and it never really seemed real to me. Eventually, after being gone for a decade, I knew what else was out there. I rented this space in November of 1996 and opened it in May of 1997.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photo at top: Beverly Dvorkin poses for a photo in After-words bookstore Oct. 2, 2019. (Areeba Shah/MEDILL)