by Ted Walker
“Now all I have to do is find a way to sneak these back home,” said an older man in a cardigan as he approached the already book-stacked counter. Bob Roshke, the independent owner of The Bookworks since he opened it in 1984, smiled and rang up his sheepish customer’s armful of hard backs and art books. “When I was twenty,” continued the buyer, “I had to sneak dirty magazines. Now I have to sneak these in.” The counter at the front of the store, where the sunlight comes in best through the high storefront windows, is where customers linger to discuss their latest literary interests with Roshke, his wife Ronda Pilon, and anyone else within earshot. Roshke, bald, with friendly bespectacled eyes, is not the type to inhibit such conversation, most of which can be overheard from almost anywhere among the tightly packed shelves of books and music.
The Bookworks, like any good used bookstore, overflows with books of most conceivable designation (over 60 categories) without overrunning its banks altogether. Though neatly arranged and well-organized stock rises to the ceiling, the telltale cardboard boxes run the length of some aisles like cardboard spines. It is a habit of mine to treat any bookstore without the appropriate browsing obstacles with a hint of distrust. And because the natural tendency when browsing is to take a load off, the non-weight-bearing structures wear printer paper badges warning: PLEASE DO NOT SIT ON THE BOXES. Sense tells me that those signs would not be there if it hadn’t happened at least twice.
Because space in his Wrigleyville location is at a premium, Roshke incorporates a buying and selling philosophy that helps customers and aisle space alike: price books to sell, and select incoming books carefully. “Our theory of bookselling,” Roshke told me, “is to turn our stock over.” The result is a store full of books that customers want, which they can buy for a competitive price.
This should not suggest, however, that The Bookworks is devoid of the strange and unexpected finds that characterize great bookstores. Beyond his most popular sections, like those devoted to Art and Literature, Roshke’s other robustly represented categories include Nature, UFOs, Witchcraft, Paranormal and, weighing in with two unnerving and impressively allocated shelves, the Occult. On a note of personal interest, The Bookworks’ offers laudable Baseball and Baseball Biography sections, in which I found a paperback copy of Roger Angell’s The Summer Game for a modest $2.50.
When Roshke, originally from the suburbs of Chicago, first opened the store, Wrigleyville was a different kind of neighborhood, where rents were reasonable enough to start a business. “It was kind of like Wicker Park was 10 years ago,” said Roshke of the area that now hosts an Einstein Bros. bagel shop across the street and a dog-sitting facility a few blocks away. “People couldn’t believe that [I] was going to try a bookstore in this neighborhood. It was a rough neighborhood. I remember watching a group of about 15 kids run past the store, chasing each other with baseball bats.” After 3 years as sole owner and employee in his original location, Roshke moved The Bookworks to its current home, at 3444 N. Clark. With the move came an expansion, and the addition of Pilon and 5 part-time employees to the staff.
Roshke learned the basics of book-selling at and independent bookstore in Seattle. He also learned from his boss and storeowner that “it’s a grueling thing to own a bookstore.” Despite this hard truth of the business, the pleasures of book selling compelled him. “The element of second hand and rare books, you never know what will show up. It’s like treasure hunting.” Eventually, his boss sent him out to appraise a personal collection without any expectations of value. “I went to this woman’s house, and she was selling her great-grandparents’ library. It was like walking into a museum. There were first edition Dickens, and beautiful color-plate books. I’ve never seen a library like that since.” Roshke, still inexperienced in book appraisal, made her an offer and returned to give his boss the news. “We ended up calling her back” Roshke said, “and making her a second, [higher], offer.” It didn’t take him long to learn enough to avoid such misjudgments in the future, but when it comes to books, there is always more to learn. “The idea of what a book is actually worth,” said Roshke, “is a lifelong process.”
After a slow start in the mid-eighties, the store’s business picked up. Now the store holds a place in the community that Roshke described in one word: “established.” Walk-in business from the surrounding residential neighborhoods, as well as enthusiastic collectors in pursuit of particularly rare books, have sustained The Bookworks. “We’ve been around for a while,” Roshke continued, “and there aren’t too many of us around that I know of.”
Despite a newer online edition of the business targeting rare and more valuable books in a narrower market, it is in the store itself, among the first editions in the corner and the trade paperbacks with titillating covers hanging in plastic baggies on the wall, that an old book’s lifespan, its changing hands, its value, resides. Roshke continues to work the counter five days a week, chatting with customers and buying their books.
While we spoke, a man came in with a brown paper shopping bag full of books to sell, setting them on the counter in order to wander the shelves nearby. As Roshke described to me the arc of his business, the man turned to us. “Things didn’t really pick up until I started working here.”
Roshke smiled. “Jerome used to work for us. He’s an alumnus.”