LOGAN SQUARE — Last October, when coronavirus cases were beginning to surge and certain businesses were restricted from opening, the owner of City Lit Books announced the independent bookstore would be closing for good because of the pandemic.
Neighbors were devastated, but right around the same time, longtime librarian Stephanie Kitchen was quietly working behind the scenes to reopen the beloved bookstore and keep the community hub alive.
After months of planning, Kitchen reopened City Lit at 2523 N. Kedzie Blvd. over the weekend, reversing one of the neighborhood’s most painful pandemic closures. Opening weekend was busy, she said, with “many people so happy to be back in the space.”
“It felt really good hearing people say this weekend, ‘Thank you for bringing City Lit back,'” Kitchen said. “I think after the year we all had of so many businesses closing, of so many other places disappearing, it felt awesome to be a part of something that’s opening again.”
Kitchen bought the business from former owner Teresa Kirschbraun, who ran the book shop for eight years.
Before the pandemic, Kitchen was working toward opening her own bookstore — “one of those pie in the sky-type ideas,” as Kitchen describes it. She even took a special course for aspiring bookstore owners.
Then Kirschbraun shut down City Lit, one of the only independent bookstores in Kitchen’s neighborhood of Logan Square.
“… In the time of the pandemic, we have been reduced to an order fulfillment business with precious little customer interaction. … Supporting an order fulfillment center is simply not sustainable, financially or emotionally,” Kirschbraun said in a written statement at the time.
Kitchen saw the closure as an opportunity to bring back a neighborhood gem and quickly approached Kirschbraun about buying the business. There were delays, but eventually the two reached a deal and Kitchen got the keys to City Lit. Kitchen declined to disclose how much she paid for the business, but said she bought the LLC and inherited the lease.
“It took us a while to get a deal put together because of the trajectory of the pandemic,” Kitchen said. “Things were getting better, and then around the holidays things got worse and I pulled back. Things started turning around again at the beginning of the year. I didn’t give up on the dream. Teresa and I were finally able to reach a deal in April.”
Kitchen has worked for several used and new bookstores and was a librarian at Harold Washington Library for 13 years.
In reopening City Lit, Kitchen aims to revive the once-thriving small business, and not stray from its original mission. Kitchen gave the shop fresh coats of paint and rearranged some things, but largely kept it the same. She plans to bring back readings and other events in the coming months. She also kept the frequent buyer program, which means customers can still use their outstanding credit.
“It’s still the community bookstore for Logan Square,” she said.
In the early days of the pandemic, Kirschbraun pivoted to online sales; the shop paid for books on a per book basis and got them shipped to customers directly from the distributors and publishers themselves.
Kitchen has kept that operation going for those who’d prefer to shop online. But the store, with its rows of colorful book spines, is full of life again. And that is reason to celebrate, Kitchen said.
“I’m feeling really great about things,” she said. “I just really appreciate everyone’s support in the neighborhood.”
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