With auction in Chicago, Bookman’s Alley owner prepares to move on after 33 years in Evanston

Jia You

A fireman’s uniform, a printing machine, ship models, World War II bond posters and of course books – books everywhere – were all tucked in the shelves, spread across armchairs and stacked on the floor at Bookman’s Alley, 1712 Sherman Ave.

“There’s a lot to do…so this place looks like a mess,” said owner Roger Carlson.

The bookstore that held more than 20 auctions over the past three decades will auction off most of its remaining valuables Wednesday at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in Chicago. The auction is the next step in Carlson’s plan to close down Bookman’s after 33 years of business.

“The elderly lady I live with thinks it’d be better if I stayed home and grabbed her lunch,” the 83-year-old said jokingly from his usual spot behind the desk of his shop. “The fact is that it’s over, from a standpoint that I can’t do a decent job.”

Carlson opened Bookman’s Alley in 1979 after a career as an advertisement salesman. Since then, the bookstore has boasted an expansive collection of out-of-print books, artifacts and antiquities. Items in the auction Wednesday include a postcard sent by F. Scott Fitzgerald and a pension document signed by Napoleon.

“I wanted an attractive, comfortable bookshop that encouraged people to browse, sit down and read, tell their friends,” Carlson said. “They can come here and enjoy themselves.”

But to some customers, the store means much more than just a place to read.

“It was like a Narnia experience,” said Weinberg senior Kyle Rosenblum about when he first discovered the bookstore as a freshman. “It looked so small from the outside, and as you go it just never ended. You never know what you’re going to find.”

Some of the more obscure artifacts Rosenblum found while digging around included old pop comics from the 1950s and editions of Shakespeare that were more than a century old, he said.

For Evanston resident Shirley Conley, Bookman’s was a “calm” spot for relaxation. She said she would regularly visit the bookstore after a frenzied afternoon shuttling her kids to and from the Evanston Athletic Club for swimming practice.

“You go into another world,” Conley said of the store she visited for 20 years. “Just with that hour, you were transported into another time and space.”

And Carlson has been part of that charm.

“I’ve never not seen him in that chair,” Rosenblum said. “It’s almost like he’s part of the store.”

“Always a smiling face greeting you at the door – you always feel welcome,” Conley added.

Both Carlson and Rosenblum said they don’t want to see the bookshop close.

“It really stinks because it’s something that we should never not have,” Rosenblum said. “Just somewhere to find things.”

Several people have expressed interest in continuing the operation, Carlson said, but none of them have the money, experience or attitude he expects.

“Running a bookstore like this requires a certain fanaticism,” Carlson added.

Though he dealt with thefts and declining business, he said the experience was an “unalloyed pleasure.”

“There are…people I’ve enjoyed meeting, books that I wouldn’t have seen under the normal course of events, authors I wouldn’t have known,” he said.

But he is not upset about closing the business, he said, as he picked up a copy of a Chicago Tribune article from July 31, 1987 about his Evanston store. Back then, Carlson worked at the bookstore from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m for five to six days a week, he said.

“I was fifty-nine years old but (in that photo I) looked like thirty-five to me,” he said. “Now I look like a hundred and thirty-five.”