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Kibbitznest Thrives As Old-School Bookstore Even Without Wi-Fi

By Ted Cox | February 17, 2017 5:14am
 Anne Kostiner shows off a typewriter in the reading room at Kibbitznest.
Anne Kostiner shows off a typewriter in the reading room at Kibbitznest.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

LINCOLN PARK — Kibbitznest is old-school.

Not only is it a bookstore that acts as a community gathering spot, but it doesn't have Wi-Fi and discourages customers from sitting glued to a screen.

"I thought I wanted to bring that back," said Anne Kostiner, owner of Kibbitznest, 2212 N. Clybourn Ave. "Where do we connect? Where in the community can we go to talk to people, to have coffee or a drink, whatever, and discuss things?

"What happened to that?" Kostiner added. "Because I think now there's a big need for it."

Kostiner made a splash last summer with her plans to open a bookstore banning laptops and without internet access.

"This is a Wi-Fi-free zone," she re-emphasized Thursday.

 Kibbitznest has restored an old Clybourn Avenue machine shop that most recently was an Einstein Bros. Bagels outlet.
Kibbitznest has restored an old Clybourn Avenue machine shop that most recently was an Einstein Bros. Bagels outlet.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

Yet along the way she softened her approach. While there's no Wi-Fi, laptops and smartphones aren't actually banned, just discouraged.

"People know that we don't want to see five people at a table all on their phones," she said.

The concept grew out of a nonprofit she'd co-founded with her husband, Lewis Kostiner, intent on fostering a balance between computer-based communication and face-to-face interaction in our increasingly digital age.

"You're a social being," she said. "It's what makes you human. You need other people."

Kostiner explained that "theory meets practice" at the bookstore, technically titled Kibbitznest: Books, Brews & Blarney.

It took until October to open, as the Kostiners restored an old 1924 machine works to its original brick shell after it had most recently been an Einstein Bros. Bagels outlet.

"It was a lot of work," Kostiner said, but they had considerable experience in the field as pioneers of West Loop redevelopment, having built Johnny's Ice House as well as the Wishbone Restaurant on Washington Boulevard. They had 16 buildings in the area, and at one point had Oprah Winfrey as a tenant.

The results at Kibbitznest are striking. There's a bright room in the front, a serving area with a full bar also offering hand-poured, one-at-a-time cups of coffee and a menu including cheese plates, Vienna Beef hot dogs (a must, said Kostiner, a Chicago native raised in Little Italy) and the likewise locally produced Bobtail Ice Cream. Toward the back are a reading room and larger performance area — all lined with books.

Book clubs are welcomed, and on Sundays newspapers are set out on a large main table for anyone to sit down and read.

Although Kostiner said the public response thus far has been "phenomenal," with people saying, "I just love this place," the next phase in the Kibbitznest project begins Friday with a performance by local singer-songwriter Pat McKillen at 8:30 p.m., launching what Kostiner plans to be a regular weekend music series.

That will be followed by a lecture series on Wednesday and Thursday nights, led by the University of Chicago's Graham School and beginning with Josh Daniel speaking on the topic of "Rousseau and Education" at 7 p.m. March 9. According to Kostiner, they might begin as lectures, but are intended to lead into question-and-answer sessions along the lines of the Socratic method.

"The idea is to get the audience engaged in conversation," she said.

Kibbitznest's boldest position, however, might be that it's located a stone's throw from a Barnes & Noble outlet at the Webster Place shopping center. Kostiner countered that competition by emphasizing books on liberal arts, many from university presses, as well as low-priced remainders of more general interest and used books.

"They're carefully curated books," Kostiner said. "They're books that you could probably order at Barnes & Noble, but you're probably not going to find them on their shelves."

The tactile, hands-on experience of paging through a book is emphasized, as are board games and even old-school typewriters placed in the store. In fact, customers just spontaneously started using the typewriters to write poems and other messages, pinning them to a bulletin board at the front door, and the Kostiners have been copying them for inclusion in a book.

"People come in and hang out," Lewis Kostiner said. "There's no pressure."

"It doesn't have to be 24/7 plugged into your electronic media," Anne Kostiner said. "Younger people come in here and they don't feel the pressure. It takes the burden off younger people to always feel they have to be techie."

Kibbitznest, she added, should act as a something of a sanctuary from that. "

It's OK not to be plugged in for an hour," Kostiner said. "It's OK. It's not a bad thing."