Written by Jennifer Fisher
Owner Roger Carlson is nearly obscured by a stack of papers and old volumes at the front entrance to Bookman’s Alley, where he reads a yellowed 1873 issue of Harper’s Weekly and greets every customer who enters the door.
There are just five weeks left until Carlson, 85, closes Bookman’s Alley for good after 33 years of operation in Evanston. The used bookstore is hidden behind the main buildings of Sherman Avenue downtown, requiring customers to follow the wooden finger on a sign that points the way down the alley between Panera Bread and Saville Flowers.
They may be hidden, but Carlson and his used bookstore have become famous over the years, drawing visitors from around the country and even securing a fictional presence, in the novel The Time Traveler’s wife. Evanston author and longtime customerAudrey Niffenegger turned Carlson into a character (with his real name) for her 2003 bestseller.
“She had me,” Carlson says, his bright blue eyes peering out from behind the stacks of books at the front of the store. “I used to have a bowl of gumdrops here, and she advised people to be careful about the gumdrops.”
He admits that the gumdrops, like the books in his shop, were not exactly new.
Carlson, who lives in Deerfield, originally told customers he was closing in early 2011, but he says he’s gotten an extension on the lease, which now runs out at the end of this September. He said he made the decision to close because of competition from online sellers, and because he’s getting older and his health is not improving.
“The book business went to hell, and if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, I need new glasses,” he jokes.
Between now and the end of September, he’s hoping to sell the 15,000 volumes he estimates remain in the store—as well as the paintings, antiques and other ephemera that decorate the long, winding space that once served as cold storage.
After opening the black-painted French doors to the shop, customers wind their way through the space from one book-filled room to another, stepping softly on worn Oriental rugs to follow the hand-written signs that distinguish one section from another. Sometimes, the decorations correspond to the section, like the leather whips and buffalo skull in the section titled “Western Americana.”
Jazz plays on speakers in the back room, where comfortable chairs are set up for readers to stop and sit. Every genre is represented, from potboiler detective novels to art history and literary criticism.
As for his own reading tastes, Carlson goes in cycles. For the last four or five years, he’s been into memoirs, autobiographies and military history. Before that, however, he read American novels, criticism, short stories and humor.
“I am a generalist,” he says. “I don’t have the mental discipline to stay in one area."
Former Ad Salesman Turns to Books
Before he opened Bookman’s Alley, Carlson spent his early career working in ad sales for Fortune 500 magazine, National Geographic and NBC.
“I’d always thought books, and did not like what I’d been doing for 30 years,” says Carlson. “I figured if I worked hard and with a certain amount of smartness, I could make a living.”
Carlson says he often buys the books he sells from families of people who have passed away, and no longer want their relative’s old volumes. His most expensive book ever was a first octavo edition of John James Audobon’s Birds of America, worth $30,000.
“The other most expensive things have generally been stolen,” he admits. That includes a signed, limited-edition book by Ernest Hemingway and a copy of Mark Twain’s first book, Jumping Frog,worth $12,000.
“I met a lot of interesting people, and quite a few jerks, and a few thieves who didn’t introduce themselves,” he jokes.
The store has also been frequented by dozens of local authors and writers on tour, according to Carlson. A friend whose job it was to entertain authors on tour brought 150 to 250 writers into the shop, he estimates—“almost every important name in the last 40 years in English.”
Famous customers include former basketball coach Phil Jackson, actress Nora Dunn and ex-Bull’s point guard B.J. Armstrong. Armstrong was trying to build a library, and bought several classics, according to David Sullivan, a retired stockbroker and friend of Carlson’s.
At its peak, Bookman’s Alley had anywhere between 30,000 and 40,000 books, Sullivan estimates.
“It is a shadow of its former self now,” he says. “The walls were covered with pictures and prints, there were more books.”
“There’s going to be a lot left.”
Sullivan said he first met Carlson 35 years ago, and described his friend as funny, smart and generous.
“This is all him,” he said, gesturing to the volumes of books, each neatly contained in its own plastic cover. “It’s his life.”