Bookman’s Alley, located in downtown Evanston, is like no other place on the North Shore. Discreetly tucked into the alley between Sherman and Benson Avenues just south of Church Street, its hidden presence is indicated only by a large sign pointing west at the alley’s entrance.
Established around 1978 by Roger Carlson, a former ad man for “Fortune” and “National Geographic” magazines, Bookman’s Alley is housed in what began as a series of garages built for the street side shop owners during Evanston’s bustling 1920s. Today it’s a rambling 4,400 square-feet of more than 40,000 titles of rare and fine used books. Many—such as the exceptional early edition Frankenstein, signed by Mary Shelley, various Hemingway first editions and a handsome leather-bound set of Thomas Jefferson’s papers—are considered significant.
Sparked by his own diverse interests, Carlson has painstakingly organized more than 80 classifications including American History, Biography, Music; the Middle East, Black Interests, Poetry, Architecture and Art.
Notably, a section titled Cheap, Cheaper and Cheapest shelves an eclectic mix of books ranging from $2 to $10, where I discovered Picasso’s Picassos for $3.50.
Considering the owner’s meticulous attention to detail, it’s no surprise that shoppers can explore sheet music, vintage record albums and an assortment of distinctive maps—among them fascinating battle maps from Illinois’ 33rd Division during WWI.
My personal library has gained color and depth from haunting the shelves here. Acquired favorites include a First Edition printing of The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou, James Baldwin’s Another Country (hardbound with his signature embossed on the cover) and an extraordinary book of poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar published in 1901. Each book not only is singular but also sometimes gives an unexpected glimpse of personality from the previous owner, who slyly reveals himself through an inscription or clipping placed inside.
Carlson has done more than acquire a vast and important selection of books. He has created a stunningly unique environment. The shop is strewn with comfortable vintage couches and chairs, anchored by antique tables and lamps, welcoming one to sit and peruse.
Well-chosen objects particular to the category adorn each section. In the WWI section, you’ll find an authentic Army helmet with a bullet hole clean through perched on a shelf. In Music, you’ll see a framed collage of Maria Callas photos from 1954 holds a card signed “best wishes” from Maria herself.
When asked about his keen eye for collectibles, Carlson’s old-school marketing savvy emerges. “Sometimes book people bring in a friend who’s indifferent about books,” he said. “It was my idea to try and entertain them with interesting objects so they would be less inclined to constantly tug at the sleeve of the potential buyer.”
For established book lovers and those yet to emerge, Bookman’s Alley is an oasis. It is a place of reprieve from today’s lightning fast culture of the Internet and its flickering electronic books; a place where we are encouraged to linger among old-world charm and take time to bask in our love of the written word.
It’s truly a Local Treasure.
Bookman’s Alley is located at 1712 Sherman Ave. in Evanston. Their hours are: Tuesday to Thursday 12 p.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Sunday 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; closed Mondays. For more information, please contact Bookman’s Alley directly at 847-869-6999.