10 of Our Favorite Independent Bookstores in Chicago

Beyond the shelves, these shops also have knowledgeable staff, excellent cafes and community events

March 12, 2024 7:27 am
The Understudy, a bookstore and coffee shop in Chicago. It's one of our favorite independent bookstores.
The Understudy is one of the newest additions to the city, having opened in 2023.
Heather Talbert Photography

Independent bookstores are having a renaissance in the U.S. The American Booksellers Association reported that after hitting a low of 1,651 locations in 2009, indie bookstores rebounded to 2,599 locations in 2022. Chicago has seen its own increase in the past decade: Even though a few stores closed during the pandemic, there have been several openings and reopenings in the past few years. Not only are the shops spread across the city, but they offer different experiences, some with cafes and bars and some specializing in certain subject matter. Here are 10 independent bookstores in Chicago you should check out.

outside of store, brick wall, sign, and red entrance
57th Street Books
Elisa Shoenberger

57th Street Books

Based in Hyde Park, this nonprofit bookshop may looks like a garden apartment, but don’t let that fool you — this is one of the city’s magical gems. Just like Alice, you can get lost in its shelves as you go deeper and deeper into its seemingly never-ending rooms. 57th Street has an amazing children’s section, as well as a fantastic selection of fiction and young adult books. It also has great staff recommendation sections, and you can count on said staff to find most of the obscure books that you desire. It’s the sister bookstore to the more academically minded Seminary Co-op only a few blocks away.

1301 E 57th St

This Black woman-owned bookstore wants to give back to the community in a big way. Its mission statement: “We are booksellers dedicated to bridging the literacy gap among minoritized communities by providing access TO and building interest IN books.” Since Semicolon opened in 2019, the shop has amplified authors of color as well as focusing on literacy campaigns at Chicago Public Schools. Last year, owner Danielle Mullen decided to revamp the bookstore into a nonprofit. The shop closed its physical presence in late January 2024 unexpectedly but should open again in August. Currently the bookstore is online and doing pop-up events around town. 

515 N Halsted St

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Pilsen Community Books
Pilsen Community Books
Pilsen Community Books

Pilsen Community Books

This Pilsen-based bookstore offers a space for community-minded action. It first opened in 2016, but in 2020, it became the first employee-owned bookstore in Chicago. While they sell a variety of books, they also sell Chicago-made goods and host fundraisers and even sign- and button-making. They also work with Liberation Library to provide books to youth who are incarcerated. For folks who’d like recommendations from the staff, consider signing up for one of their two subscriptions: Seeds of Change or Bread and Roses.

1102 W 18th St

Exile in Bookville

Taking a cue from Liz Phair’s album Exile in Guyville, music and book lovers Javier Ramirez and Kristin Enola Gilbert have curated a wonderful bookshop on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building in the Loop. While they have a deep independent fiction section, they also focus on music books and vinyl records. Plus, the building is a gem in itself, filled with murals and a variety of art-inclined businesses. 

410 S Michigan Ave

Volumes Bookcafe

Wicker Park-based Volumes has its own phoenix story. Started by sisters Rebecca and Kimberly George in 2016, they wanted to create a community space to celebrate and enjoy books. Sadly, they closed the shop in 2021 after losses from the pandemic. Thanks to help from community members and crowdfunding, they decided to purchase their own space, and opened again in 2022. They sell a nice selection of new and used books, and have a cafe with espresso drinks, baked goods, and local beer and wine.

1373 N Milwaukee

City Lit Books

Based in the heart of Logan Square, City Lit is one of those great bookstore comeback stories. Teresa Kirschbraun opened the shop in 2012 but COVID-19 resulted in its closure in 2020. Thankfully, librarian and Logan Square resident Stephanie Kitchen purchased the store and reopened it in 2021. The shop has a wonderful cozy atmosphere, a great selection of contemporary fiction, and lots of author events and book clubs. Plus, they’re dog-friendly!

2523 N Kedzie Blvd

Skunk Cabbage Books
Skunk Cabbage Books
Elisa Shoenberger

Skunk Cabbage Books

Opened in 2023, this Avondale bookshop gets its name from a native plant known for its pungent smell and emergence in early spring. Owner Ren Dean “hopes to foster an environment that supports new growth and interdependence in our communities,” according to the website. The shop has a focus on nature books but it also has a great selection of fiction and children’s titles. Additionally, the shop stocks local goods by Chicago artists and hosts a variety of workshops every month.

2826 N Milwaukee Ave

Unabridged Bookstore

This iconic bookstore, which has been serving the Lakeview neighborhood since 1980, is the place for LGBTQ+ books in Chicago. It hosts several book clubs, and has a wonderful selection of travel books on top of its other sections of fiction, poetry and children’s books. Plus, it’s known for great staff recommendations, so if you aren’t sure what you’re looking for, this is the perfect place to get some ideas.

3251 N Broadway

The Book Cellar

This woman-owned bookstore in Lincoln Square has become an institution since opening in 2004. Owner Suzy Takacs has a keen eye for both books and wine (there’s a nice little cafe inside), and it’s a great general bookstore for fiction and children’s books in particular. The shop has the best staff recommendation shelves in the city. There’s also plenty of programming, from several themed book clubs to author readings and signings. They also strongly promote local authors, which is always a plus.

4736 N Lincoln Ave

The Understudy

Owners Adam Todd Crawford and Danny Fender opened their shop in 2023. Both had a background in theater and decided to make that a focus of their bookstore/coffee shop. Not only do they have readings, but they host a wide variety of events befitting a theater-focused shop, including play readings, concerts and even drag performances. 

5531 N Clark St

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