WICKER PARK — For local writer Dan Kelly, stumbling upon Quimby’s on Damen Avenue in 1991 was a revelation.
The underground bookstore had just opened in Wicker Park, run by then-owner Steven Svymbersky. Kelly had recently started self-publishing his own zines — putting out titles like “Vox Canis” — and was looking for places to sell them. Quimby’s obliged.
“I just had subjects that I couldn’t really pitch to The Reader or Newcity. … Steven and Quimby’s were just more open to anything,” Kelly said. “It was kind of just a very unique environment … a little wacky, a little dangerous feeling, too, I guess. Kind of gritty.”
From the beginning, Quimby’s established itself as one of the few places in Chicago dedicated to buying and selling handmade zines, comics and an array of bizarre items and merchandise you couldn’t find anywhere else, Kelly said.
The cramped storefront was also a place where local artists and writers could meet up, trade ideas and host events to support the larger creative community.
There were “just so many other local zinesters, and writers and poets and political people, groups, that were able to come together in there,” Kelly said. “And I just cannot think of any other circumstance where that would have happened, where so many diverse people with, you know, strange ideas could come together and feel comfortable.”
The shop, which opened at Damen and Evergreen avenues in 1991, moved to its current location,1854 W. North Ave., in the late ’90s.
This month, Quimby’s is celebrating its 30th anniversary as a cultural landmark in a neighborhood that’s long been known as one of Chicago’s trendiest — and now, most expensive.
“We’re still here. And it’s kind of weird,” said Eric Kirsammer, who has owned Quimby’s since 1997 and also owns Chicago Comics in Lakeview. “This type of store, in a way, shouldn’t be in this neighborhood now, with designer boutiques around the corner and stuff like that.”
But even as high-end restaurants and luxury condos encroach on its borders, Quimby’s remains a fixture in Chicago’s indie publishing and creator scene.
“There’s no place else like Quimby’s. I’ve never seen a bigger self-publishing selection in the store. And Quimby’s involvement in the community is really a crucial part, I think, of what makes the store so special to so many of us,” said Cynthia Hanifin, an employee and organizer of the monthly Zine Club Chicago meetup.
“For me, Quimby’s isn’t just a zine shop. It’s really the heart of a self-publishing community here in Chicago.”
‘They Aren’t Trying To Be Everything To Everyone’
Not much has changed over the years at Quimby’s. Zines, comics, graphic novels and DIY ephemera, much of it from local artists, line the tables and shelves.
The store has been a second home to artists and writers who have gone on to widespread acclaim, like Chris Ware and Dan Clowes. That’s led to the store’s international reputation as a must-visit in Chicago.
“When I first came to Chicago, it was like, ‘Oh, yes, this is part of the reason I want to be here.’ Because it was so clear to me that there was a local community of people who were doing fanzines and self-publishing and comics,” said writer Jessica Hopper, author of “The First Collection of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic.” Her book “Night Moves” captures the changing Wicker Park music and art scene of the early aughts.
Quimby’s sold Hopper’s fanzine even before she moved to the city in the 1990s. And more than 20 years later, the store is still a vital resource for people looking for a retail experience outside of “any algorithm,” Hopper said.
“They aren’t trying to be everything to everyone. They really are trying to serve the community of people who love independent comics and zines and art books and magazines that you’re not going to find at Barnes and Noble, thank God,” Hopper said.
At the heart of the business is Quimby’s consignment model, which has allowed thousands of writers and artists to sell their work in the store, free of overhead. The meticulous process is overseen by manager Liz Mason, who’s been at Quimby’s since 2001.
“As long as it’s reading material and falls under the other logistical considerations of price and format … we’re happy to sell it,” Mason said. “Someone just brings in a couple copies, they fill out a form. And once it sells and they check in, they get 60 percent of the retail price.”
Mason keeps track of artists and their sales in thick alphabetized binders — an arduous task she said “is not easy and not fun, but totally worth it.”
“It’s a different business model than the stuff that we buy up front from a wholesaler or distributor or publisher,” she said. “And consignment, because we’re not giving the money up front, we don’t have to do the hard sell on it. We can just be like, ‘Look at this awesome stuff!’”
For local zine and comic maker Aim Beland, the consigning system has helped expand his work’s audience and led to collaborations with other artists.
“I always found it really wonderful. Liz is great at organizing the space. And I know there’s so much content, and it looks like something could easily get lost. But they’re very thorough about making sure everything is front-facing and nothing gets discombobulated,” Beland said.
Hanifin, a longtime Quimby’s patron who started working at the store a few months ago as the “zine specialist,” said that dedication is vital to the store’s mission.
“We put in the extra time and effort to make sure that anyone who walks in the door, whether they’re a 7-year-old kid or a 65-year-old grandmother, can consign their zines with us and have them available to anyone else who wants to read them,” she said.
Like many local businesses, Quimby’s had to recalibrate during the pandemic.
It closed to in-person shopping for several months, and Mason worked alone filling online and pickup orders. The store also launched a customized zine package, where for $25 customers would get an assortment of handpicked publications.
“That proved to be helpful, financially, but more so the way that people reacted to it, it was something that they felt passionate about, because it made them feel seen and connected in a time where they were stuck at home,” Mason said. “They were like, ‘I love you guys. I really want to support you. Here are things that I’m into, but also just give me whatever you want.’ It was so sweet. And it really sort of nurtured my soul.”
To mark 30 years in business, Quimby’s is releasing a T-shirt and sticker, as well as a few other surprises yet to be announced.
Kirsammer and Mason said one of the most rewarding parts of their jobs is when longtime customers stop in, sometimes with partners they met while browsing Quimby’s.
“On the regular, people come in use the photo booth and are like, ‘Today is our anniversary. We met here,’” Mason said. “This is literally happening once a week.”
And while some changes have been made over the years, like expanding the kids section as more families move into the neighborhood, Quimby’s central goal remains making alternative media more accessible, Kirsammer said.
“This sounds really grandiose, but we’re an asset to the city,” Kirsammer said. “I feel like we’re in it for the long haul. … A store like this seems it should, like, flare out, but we’re just kind of still here.”
Quimby’s is open noon-6 p.m. Thursday-Monday at 1854 W. North Ave.
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