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O'Gara & Wilson, City's Oldest Bookstore, Ends 100-Year Run in Hyde Park

By Sam Cholke | June 24, 2013 6:24am
 O'Gara and Wilson will close up shop in Hyde Park after more than a century of booksellers training apprentices in the neighborhood.
O'Gara and Wilson to Close
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HYDE PARK — Chicago’s oldest bookstore will close in August, and with it goes an unbroken line of a master booksellers training apprentices that stretches back more than a century.

Doug Wilson, the owner and apprentice-less master at O’Gara and Wilson, will close the Hyde Park bookstore that has occupied 57th Street since at least 1913 — and move to Indiana. The business — which once was called Woodworth's — actually dates to 1882, but it has had different locations in the city.

“We love Hyde Park and we’re sad to be going but it’s necessitated by very simple economics,” Wilson said on Thursday at the shop, 1448 E. 57th St.

Wilson said he cut every expense he could in the economic recession — including his own salary — and can now no longer afford to stay in Hyde Park. He is moving to the town where he now lives, Chesterton, Ind., where rents are cheaper and taxes are lower.

“As this downturn goes on, it’s basically like a body in anorexia,” Wilson said. “You start cutting off nonessential tasks, and eventually you get to the organs. Then what can you cut off that won’t result in death?”

He said he is now down to skin and bones and must close the doors on the bookshop that Saul Bellow often browsed before his death in 2005.

Wilson said Bellow would drift through the store “with a forlorn look of deep thought on his face” bemoaning that he no longer even owned his own novels.

When a first-edition copy of Bellow’s first novel, “Dangling Man,” arrived at O’Gara and Wilson, Wilson rushed out to greet Bellow as he walked past later that afternoon to have him sign it shortly before Bellow's death in 2005.

“He wrote a very plaintive thing of old times and people passed and memories, and then he signed it Saul Bellow,” Wilson said. “He was always incredibly kind and friendly to me and the shop.”

For more than 40 years, Wilson has been the middleman between Hyde Park intellectuals discarding ideas and those in search of new ones.

When former 5th Ward Ald. Leon Despres died at age 101 in 2009, his son brought a portion of the Despres library to Wilson to sell so he could keep the ideas that the civil rights icon treasured circulating in the neighborhood.

“There would be people who would want to buy his books because it had his name and notes in it,” Wilson said. “It was a sentimental way to remember him and keep in touch with his memory.”

Most recently, O’Gara and Wilson has become the conduit for the library of Dr. George Pollock, the former head of the Institute for Psychoanalysis in Chicago and a Hyde Parker. Wilson is selling much of the collection, but also placing some at the Michigan City library, where Pollock had a summer home.

At the height of the vacation season in early August, O’Gara and Wilson will move to Chesterton. He hopes to stay in touch with Hyde Parkers who have summer homes near the dunes.

He is less hopeful that he will find an apprentice there to keep the tradition alive.

“I’ve tried to woo some young academics,” Wilson said. “I failed to be as persuasive as Joe was.”

Joe O’Gara put Wilson through a rigorous five-year apprenticeship before making him a partner in the bookshop. Wilson learned to spot the flaws in a binding, distinguish the gilding of a Victorian cover and identify fakes.

“After years and years, this mantle seems to descend and you think, ‘I know what I’m doing,’” Wilson said. “You develop a practiced eye — you look at something and more and more you know exactly what it is.”

He said he thinks sellers of used and rare books on the Internet often lack this expertise, but his master could never have prepared him for Kindles, iPads and the volatility of the online book markets.

“When Joe [O'Gara] died in 2005, he sadly became aware that I was going to have challenges he never had,” Wilson said. “If he had survived the Depression, he figured I could survive this.”

After closing the shop Wednesday night, Wilson planned to pack his car with a load of boxes and pile the store’s mascot in the passenger seat for the trip out to the new shop in Chesterton.

Until Wednesday, a scribe loomed high on a wooden writing desk between the last row of bookcases. The dominating figure of the black-robed monk was a treasure Wilson found when going through the archives of a bookbinder.

The scribe was once part of an exhibit on the history of writing at the Century of Progress Exposition held in Burnham Park in 1933. Before being put in storage for Wilson to find, the monk lived briefly at the Museum of Science and Industry, where the young Wilson would visit him.

“When I was a child, I would visit him regularly — he was one of my favorite exhibits,” Wilson said.

The move to Indiana will be the end of a long chapter for the O’Gara and Wilson and the beginning of a new one for the master bookseller and his monk.

“Now he’s going on a great adventure, he’s going to be a Hoosier monk,” Wilson said.