May 15, 2009

O’Gara & Wilson owner carries on century-old bookselling tradition

Though he may be the sole owner of O’Gara & Wilson Booksellers on East 57th Street and South Harper Avenue, Doug Wilson doesn’t delude himself into thinking the store is his alone. As the fourth person to take the helm of what is now Chicago’s oldest continuously operating bookstore, Wilson can trace the store’s lineage from the 1890s, and sees himself as merely the latest bearer of “the torch of the ins and outs of bookselling.”

“Book stores aren’t so much a set piece of real estate as they are a line of knowledge, a passing of a profession from one person to another,” he said.

In 1972, Wilson was a 22-year-old college graduate “on a fast track to a job I would hate” at a Chicago department store. He had wandered into Joseph O’Gara’s store a few times as a “book scout,” trying to sell used books he’d found at local Salvation Army stores at a markup. But O’Gara gave him more than he bargained for.

“He made an offer to me, which was not just to come and work for him, but to serve an apprenticeship in the old-school European sort of way, which meant that if it worked out, you would then be in a position to join the business and become a partner even,” Wilson said.

Even now, Wilson seems a bit awestruck at the fortuitous turn of events. Perhaps O’Gara was impressed with his choices and saw someone that would be able to learn the trade. Perhaps it was just timing—O’Gara had been running his store alone since 1937, and he was looking to bring in some new blood. Wilson seized the chance to “make his avocation his vocation.”

Now 59 years old, Wilson doesn’t look like an eccentric Victorian bookseller: He doesn’t wear a tweed suit or monocle, but jeans and a sweater. And though the antique typewriters, Victorian post cards, and Soviet-era lapel pins that overflow into his shop window seem to indicate otherwise, he is in many ways a modern businessman.

But Wilson seems to have one foot firmly planted in the past. He still acquires most of his books through estate sales, just as O’Gara taught him. A sign warning “No Abusive Language” lets customers know that they’ve entered a more civilized space. As customers trickle through on a quiet Friday afternoon, most whisper their tentative requests and quietly coo over their finds.

Although not an academic, Wilson researches many of the items he comes across, trying to discover who owned them, and what these books have witnessed in their decades or even centuries of existence. He has been researching his favorite item in the store for over a year: a family scrapbook started in the 1850s by a woman from Liverpool.

For Wilson, it’s not just about the bottom line. He believes he is in a unique position to rescue these items, which might be thrown away if not for the intervention of his “practiced eye.”

“I will try to make sure that I’m a good steward for this material, and get it by process of the market, into the hands of someone who will not only buy it, but who will take it the next step, and research it, and incorporate it into the writing of the fabric of history,” he said.

Even as the Internet makes it easy for literary aficionados to easily search the planet, Wilson believes that shops like his preserve a special magic—that moment when someone comes in to look for the exact volume that is in his store, or when graduate students discover books which shape the entire direction of their scholarship. “Serendipity,” Wilson said.

“Jerome,” a life-sized wax figure of a hooded monk bent over a manuscript, is the store’s most formidable presence, and proof of this elusive magic. The first time Wilson saw Jerome, he was six years old, visiting an exhibit on the history of writing at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry with his family. Entranced, Wilson stood staring with his nose pressed against the glass, only breaking out of his reverie when museum guards took him to the front desk to help find his parents, who had moved on without him.

Over 50 years later, Wilson was visiting the estate sale of a wealthy collector when he stumbled upon the monk once again. The collector had originally endowed the writing exhibit at the MSI, which was carted up and put into storage in the early 1990s. Wilson could not let the monk slip through his fingers again, and his shop now provides a proper home for a South Side native who devoted his “life” to the preservation of manuscripts.

His life among books has put Wilson in direct contact with history and the people that have lived it. He recalls the thrill of shaking the hand of a man who met Albert Einstein, and realizing that only one degree separated him from the thinker. “As a kid I was really interested in time travel, in fiction dealing with time travel. Somewhere it’s a willing suspension of disbelief to read those sorts of stories and take them seriously,” Wilson said.

“But there is another way you can time travel, and that is talking to someone who was there,” he said. “People who live through history telling you their story enables you to travel back in time. That is something I will never become bored with, or blasé about.”