Community-minded City Lit Books thrives despite paper-thin margins

City Lit Books exterior
City Lit Books, an independent retail store at 2523 N. Kedzie Blvd., has been part of the Logan Square neighborhood three-and-a-half years. (Steven Porter/MEDILL)

By Steven Porter

City Lit Books, an independent store just off Logan Square in Chicago, has been part of the neighborhood since 2012.

Although it has sold more books year-over-year every month since its launch in 2012, its sales are but one measure of its success, according to owner Teresa Kirschbraun.

“I do everything I can in terms of events and bringing people here,” Kirschbraun said, claiming the store has ingrained itself in the local community by keeping a full events calendar.

“We have five or six books clubs that we host every month,” she said. “We have an open mic night, a salon series that focuses primarily on poetry, story time every week which brings in about 30 families every Saturday morning.”

The idea behind these events, plus frequent author visits, is twofold. On the one hand, it drives sales by keeping City Lit Books in the forefront of customers’ minds.

“People come for story time, and they remember us, then, when they are shopping for a baby shower gift or a birthday party gift,” Kirschbraun said. “It becomes part of their everyday.”

City Lit Books club
Joe Bear, one of six part-time booksellers who work for independent retail shop City Lit Books in Logan Square, hosts a book club with three customers March 1. (Steven Porter/MEDILL)

On the other hand, beyond maintaining a healthy bottom line, the business exists to build communities, Kirschbraun added.

“I think success is measured in a lot of ways for something like this,” she said.

Joe Bear, one of six part-time booksellers employed by the store, said the book club he hosts — it’s called SOC 201 — aims to facilitate interesting conversations around important topics.

“I’m interested in politics and social issues, so I wanted a book club that would be along those lines,” he said.

Bear selected “The Beast” by Óscar Martínez, a book about the travails of immigrants making their way to the U.S., for Tuesday night’s group discussion.

David Komaniecki, who doesn’t live in Logan Square, brought his own copy of the book, plus additional research, to the book club.

“I was in the neighborhood seeing a movie at the Logan Theatre, and I picked up their flier, and I saw by pure happenstance that they were going to discuss this book I’d read,” Komaniecki said. “And I decided to come.”

City Lit Books shelves
City Lit Books, an independent retailer in Logan Square, offers handwritten book suggestions for customers. (Steven Porter/MEDILL)

Komaniecki, who volunteered with the peace corps in Honduras three decades ago, married a Honduran woman whose family has experienced immigration woes like those covered in the book. His grandchildren crossed the border recently, and their father, his step-son, was killed in Honduras in 2013.

So the book club event served as an opportunity to talk about serious social issues, precisely as Bear had intended, Komaniecki explained.

Hosting these book club events doesn’t cost City Lit Books any additional money. The store is already open, and the booksellers are already on the clock. But in order for these events to continue, the store has to make enough money to cover its expenses.

Even though there aren’t any other new bookstores in Logan Square, there’s plenty of competition for local customers, Kirschbraun said.

“I think my major competition is people buying print books online from somewhere else, primarily Amazon,” she said.

Contrary to popular opinion, print book sales have seen a modest rebound recently. Nielsen BookScan, a service that collects data on about 85 percent of the bookselling market, said in December that about 571 million print books had been sold in the U.S., up about 2 percent from 559 million sold in 2014, Quartz reported.

Print book sales, industry-wide

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Nielsen BookScan data show print book sales have actually rebounded in the U.S. since 2013. (Graphic by Quartz)

As of mid-January, Amazon was selling nearly 1 million print books per day, according to Author Earnings, a website that collects information about author pay and contracts.

To compete in that kind of marketplace, Kirschbraun has had to think of City Lit Books on the neighborhood level while relying on her background in health care management. Running a bookstore bears surprising similarity to managing a network of doctors’ offices, especially when you consider the fixed costs associated in each setting, Kirschbraun said.

“I can’t change the price of a book. It’s on the book,” she said, noting that her costs are set by the publishers and distributors from whom she buys merchandise.

“I learned how to manage within that margin, and that’s what I needed to do here,” she said.

Photo at top: City Lit Books, an independent retail store at 2523 N. Kedzie Blvd., has been part of the Logan Square neighborhood three-and-a-half years. (Steven Porter/MEDILL)

Correction: 03/15/2016. Originally, the story incorrectly identified the owner of City Lit Books as Tracy Kirschbraun. The correct name is Teresa Kirschbraun. Medill Reports regrets the error.