O’Gara & Wilson opens:
Doug and Jill Wilson, owners of O’Gara & Wilson
Ltd., formerly of Hyde Park, Chicago, with some of the thousand-score used
and antiquarian books for sale at their shop at 223 Broadway. O’Gara &
Wilson’s lineage as a bookseller can be traced back more than a century.
(Tribune photo by Kevin Nevers)
By KEVIN NEVERS
Consider the used book.
Consider, say, this one: The Man-Eaters of Kumaon,
the memoir of the legendary tiger hunter and old
India hand Lt. Col. Jim Corbett, published in 1946 and purchased
second-hand--or, possibly, third- or fourth-hand--in 2001, on a whim at a
flea market cum body shop in Titusville, Fla.
In truth it’s a marvelous read. Corbett’s quarry is cunning and lethal, with
hundreds of human kills to their credit, and Corbett hunts them alone and on
foot at great peril. He’s a serviceable writer, tells his story with
admirable understatement, and conjures a time when a man with a taste for
adventure could find it easily enough in the backwaters of the British
For a moment, though, think of this book not just as a read but as an
artifact, a physical object handled and collected and treasured by
who knows whom and how many, read perhaps in the saloon of an ocean liner,
or packed in a traveling salesman’s valise, or lost in the Omaha Greyhound
station to find a new home in Saginaw or Akron or Moline. Old books have
their own secret histories, exotic or mundane but always intimate, for once
upon a time their owners loved them and left something of themselves in
their pages, some crumb of psychic residue, some glint of dream or shadow of
fear, were we only able to see it.
So read Corbett’s memoir, by the light of a fire of a winter’s evening, and
know its ghosts are reading over your shoulder.
As it happens, another copy of The Man-Eaters of Kumaon
is currently available--with 20,000 other such artifacts--at O’Gara
& Wilson Ltd., once Chicago’s oldest bookseller and now, at 223 Broadway,
Chesterton’s newest (and only) bookseller.
Owned by Doug and Jill Wilson of Chesterton, O’Gara
& Wilson is a defiant throwback to independent booksellers, before Barnes &
Noble throttled the market; to brick-and-mortar booksellers, before
Amazon.com destroyed the romance of browsing; and to old-school booksellers,
when a man learned the trade--as Doug Wilson himself learned it--by
Wilson’s mentor, Joseph O’Gara, had been
selling books since 1937--and operating in Hyde Park since the early
Sixties--when Wilson apprenticed himself to O’Gara at
23, just as O’Gara had once apprenticed himself to Nedwick and Nedwick had
to Donahue, in a lineage traceable to the 1890s. O’Gara “saw it as an
opportunity to pass the torch so there would still be well-trained
booksellers,” Wilson recalls. “You get a certain practiced eye from
apprenticing and a depth of knowledge hard to learn any other way.”
Over time Wilson acquired a share of the business and then, in 1995-96,
bought it outright from O’Gara on the latter’s
retirement. And until this year he and Jill had been operating on East 57th
Street in Hyde Park and making a go of it--Doug doing the buying, Jill
running the shop--until a perfect storm of recession and bureaucratic
connivance convinced them to flee Chicago.
Among other things, Wilson cites “the malaise of the local economy in Hyde
Park,” which--he hastens to add--“we’re
not feeling now that we’re out here.” Too many regular customers simply
stopped coming, just to avoid the temptation to spend money they didn’t
have. The University of Chicago students stopped coming too, after UC--“to
protect students from random street crime”--began
bussing them back and forth between campus and the residence halls. A
traditionally reliable source of foot traffic simply vanished.
Wilson is positively bitter, however, about the officiousness of the City of
Chicago’s officialdom, in its apparent bent “to create a toxic atmosphere
for small business.” Property-tax spikes
which were killing his landlord. Parking regulations almost calculated to
add a $50 surcharge--in the form of a ticket--to the cost of a $20 book.
“Trumped up” and “preposterous”
fees--for awnings, for air-conditioning inspections--which smacked to Wilson’s
mind of the old Chicago protection rackets. “If you don’t pay them, when you
apply for your business license the next year you won’t get it. So I rolled
over for city hall. And I saw which way it was going and I resented deeply
that they kept finding new ways to pick my pocket.”
Meanwhile, living in Chesterton, the Wilsons “saw the town’s
business-friendly policies,” made note of the thriving European Market, and
visited “the very cute and prosperous stores that we still have here a year
later after they opened.”
So when 223 Broadway went vacant, they leaped at the opportunity. “Every
instinct we have--just a gut feeling, but you have to take the plunge at
some point--is that Duneland can support the shop,”
Wilson says. “And we’ve been getting an incredibly welcome and exuberant
reception from the community and we’re very thankful.”
Wilson describes O’Gara & Wilson as a “general used and antiquarian
“We’ve always tried to be all things to all people,” Wilson says. “Anyone
who comes in with a reasonable interest, we want to cater to.” The shop thus
features fine selections of fiction and literature, including mysteries and
classic sci fi; extensive offerings in Americana and in British, European,
and military history; the customary shelves in psychology, science,
religion, and political science; a few more unusual sections devoted to
music, art, chess, and architecture; and a superb collection of global
anthropology, foreign affairs, and travel.
There are the rarities, naturally, which will appeal to bibliophiles. But
bookworms for whom the artifact itself is as valuable as the read--who
cherish oddities for the sake of their oddness and well-thumbed volumes for
the sake of their ghosts--will find rare jewels here, will
stumble on them as the archaeologist stumbles on Greek
friezes and Roman coins. That won’t happen on the Internet. Because, as
Wilson notes, there’s really no browsing on Amazon.com and “you can’t find a
book if you don’t know it exists.”
And O’Gara & Wilson is a wonderful place to browse. Hardwood floored, brick
walled, well lit and airy yet with that faint musty tang beloved of
bookworms, the shop has the intimate feel of someone’s private library, if
that someone were eclectic and a little eccentric.
See if you can find these choice volumes. Pluto’s Chain (Moscow,
1971) by Russian vulcanologist Y. Markhinin, on the volcanic geology of the
Kamchatka Peninsula. A 1967 reprint of Two Trips to Gorilla Land
(1876) by the magnificent Victorian explorer Richard Burton. The Uniform
of Glory (1949) by P.C. Wren, another but more obscure Foreign Legion
romp by the author of Beau Geste. Jailbait! The Story of Juvenile
Delinquency (1949) by William Bernard, because who wouldn’t want to own
a book with the word jailbait in the title? And more Sax Rohmer than
you can shake a stick at.
“There is a need to make a living,” Wilson says. “And I’ve been fortunate to
make a living doing what I love. It can be rough, a hand-to-mouth existence.
But beyond the pragmatic need to eat, there’s something booksellers do to
enrich culture at large that would be lost without this kind of shop.”
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday
and Saturday; 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday. Call (219) 728-1326.