WICKER PARK — When J.R. Nelson and Matt Revers moved to Chicago, both made a beeline for Myopic Books in Wicker Park.
For Nelson, it was in the mid-’90s, when the store was on Division Street.
“I kind of endlessly pestered the owner … for a job. And it only took me six or seven years of pestering to finally get a job, and I was so stoked,” Nelson said. “I knew as soon as I got to Chicago that this is where I wanted to be.”
Revers visited the store at its current location, 1564 N. Milwaukee Ave., in 2011. He, too, knew immediately he had to work there.
“This was the first place I dropped a resume off and didn’t hear anything. I was working two jobs, kind of the first thing that I could get. And then I got the call to see if I wanted to work here part-time, and this became job No. 3 for a little while,” Revers said. “I’ve just been working here ever since.”
After selling and buying thousands of books at the three-story, stuffed-to-the-gills bookstore, and living through two years of a pandemic and an increasingly unaffordable neighborhood, Revers and Nelson have new job titles: co-owners.
Earlier this week, the duo finalized their purchase of the bookstore from Rita Clark, who has owned Myopic for the past 11 years.
As they take over an institution well known by readers in Chicago and across the United States, both said they feel a responsibility to preserve the bookstore as the special, beloved place it’s been for 30 years — a place that’s here to stay.
“We want to have the best-curated collection of fine books in the city and make an atmosphere here where everybody feels comfortable and part of a community, a family, however you want to put it, to find them. To bring book lovers to the books they want. That’s it. That’s why we’re here,” Nelson said.
Since opening in the early ’90s, Myopic has bounced around in Wicker Park.
Its current home, with its large hanging sign, has become a defining part of the Wicker Park streetscape and a symbol of the neighborhood’s history as a center for arts and culture.
Myopic stands as one of a dwindling number of Wicker Park businesses that have outlasted years of gentrification and rising rents. Still, the neighborhood remains a hub for bookstores of all kinds, like Quimby’s, which celebrated its 30th birthday last year, and newer shops like Semicolon and Volumes.
“That’s great because then you have a destination for everybody,” Nelson said. “They go from one place to another place to another place. It’s great, couldn’t be better.”
One of the biggest draws for customers continues to be Myopic’s revolving inventory. Nearly all the books come from people who stop by the store to sell them, leading to an always diverse mix of essentially every genre, Revers said.
“There’s not like an algorithm feeding you recommendations here. … There’s a very good chance you’ll stumble upon a book you’ve never seen in your life,” Revers said. “I think every week I see a book that I’ve never seen before, and I’ve been working here 10 years.”
While the store might not always have a certain title in stock, it does have plenty to choose from — it carries around 60,000 books, Nelson said.
“Sometimes we’ll get a whole bunch of different books about a subject; we’ll buy a whole section of cult books or alternative health,” Nelson said. “And one section will just be like, boom, it’ll explode and word will kind of go out and people will all come in. And then they snap them up, and then we get another collection and it starts all over again. It’s like a cycle of life. It’s really fascinating to watch.”
Revers and Nelson praised Clark for valuing the store’s eclectic spirit and making sure Myopic would be stewarded by people who do, too.
“She was somebody that valued the institutional memory of the store. And I think she wanted us to carry that on,” Nelson said. “COVID was hard on every small business; Myopic had its own challenges. Rita always kept the faith and kind of led us through that period. And that’s why we’re here now. … It’s really important to us to honor that, and I think she knows that we’ll honor that.”
Nelson and Revers said they don’t have any big changes planned for Myopic. They’re excited and passionate about the opportunity, and they realize the stakes of what they’ve taken on.
When Myopic closed for a few months at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, Nelson would come in almost every day to check on the building and get out of his house.
Nelson said he would sit behind the counter and watch as people walked by, looking in, sometimes trying the door to see if the store was open. It underscored the bookstore’s place in community for Nelson and reminded him why he’s worked continue to work there for now almost 20 years.
“They would give me a little wave, or they’d do a gesture. So, that was just an incredible feeling,” he said. “That’s why we’re here. That people see that, that they know why we’re here, and it’s just an incredible feeling. I think our challenge for that is to just keep it going.”
Myopic Books is open noon-8 p.m. daily.
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