Uncovered is a new Third Coast Review series devoted to Chicago bookstores. Rivers of digital ink have been spilled on standbys like Myopic, Unabridged, and 57th Street Books, and with good reason. But there are other stores equally deserving of attention, many of which serve a non-English speaking community or niche genres. Dedicate some time to these places and map the Chicago literary landscape with us.
For the first part of this series, in the spirit of starting something new and different, I thought it was appropriate to begin with the last place I would ever imagine myself in: a Christian bookstore. Anyone who has passed beneath the Chinatown gate at W Cermak and S Wentworth has seen the grandiose establishment on the west side of the street that houses the Pui Tak Center (2216 S Wentworth). With only minor cosmetic touch-ups since it’s completion in 1928, the building is the only Chicago registered landmark in Chinatown. It was formerly owned by the On Leong Merchants Association. After the group was busted in the late 1980s for illegal gambling activities, the building was seized by the Chicago Police Department, and purchased by the Chinese Christian Union Church in 1993. The CCUC still resides there, and I happened to find myself in their Christian bookstore.
China is going through an exciting time in literature, with writers like Ma Jian, Can Xue, Ha Jin, Yiyun Li, graphic novelist Li Kunwu, Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan, and many more, exploring the harrowing depths and heartbreaking tragedies of contemporary Chinese society. Yet many works by Chinese authors are hard to find in an average bookstore. I was hoping to have finally found a mecca, a place to explore unheard voices waiting to be discovered.
I soon found out that the Pui Tak Center Bookstore held none of these works. Nor was there anything dedicated to China’s vast history of empires, Confucian or Taoist texts, the rise and fall of Mao Zedong, or much of anything about the current volatile economic and political arenas. What you will find are bilingual bibles, dating guides for young Christians, and a handful of fiction and biographies written within a Christian framework. One book that caught my eye was “A Friendly Dialogue Between An Atheist and a Christian” by Luis Palau and Zhao Qizheng which I decided to purchase.
While the store’s website boasts of “resources for English learners as well as those interested in the Chinese culture” it is important to remember the mission of the Pui Tak Center. To learn more, I talked with a woman at the main desk. The center is primarily a facility for Chinese immigrants. It offers ESL courses, youth programs, music rooms, and more; the goal is to both help assimilate immigrants into American culture while retaining a strong sense of Chinese pride and identity in the youth that are born here. Another employee directed me toward the Chinese American Museum of Chicago (238 W 23rd St). Unfortunately, I arrived seven minutes after closing. I’d also noticed the Heritage Asian Art Museum was closed, but learned that it plans to reopen in a new space on their two year anniversary in June of this year.
So I returned back up Wentworth and noticed the understated Buddhism Friendship Association (2249 S Wentworth) with temple and bookstore; despite its name, the building is almost uninviting in its obscurity, but feels like a hidden treasure. I wandered inside the little bookstore and gift shop. There’s only about a dozen books for sale in English, including a book about the Dalai Llama and one curious work called “Dharma Punx” by Noah Levine with two tattooed hands palm-to-palm in prayer on the cover. The shop also sold calligraphy brushes, bracelets, pendants, incense, various talismans, tassels, and prayer beads. A woman in a light blue robe and cap walked in and began practicing calligraphy in broad beautiful strokes. She made it look easy and barely registered my presence. I decided to head out as not to be intrusive.
There was one other bookstore that was recommended to me by the employee at Pui Tak: Champion Books and Gift (2167 S China Pl) which he had never been to, but could have what I was looking for. It is located on the first floor of the pedestrian mall parallel to S Archer Ave near the western side. I walked in and asked the woman working if there were any books in English. “Yingwen?” she replied and tried to help. She showed me some colorful books aimed at children trying to learn Chinese. Not quite what I was looking for. After a few more ‘wo ting bu dong’s on my end, I wandered the store’s other book section and found some unexpected books (like one about Mexican cuisine for English readers), but still nothing that was quite up my alley. I thanked the woman and exited back into the blustery day.
While I didn’t exactly find what I was hoping to, the day wasn’t a total wash with one new book in hand and two museums to visit in the future. The intention of this project is to explore more of the city with bookstores as the common thread. Bookstores are not stand alone buildings, but are important anchors for communities as well as ways to define what and how Chicago reads.
Observe the Chinese New Year (Monday February 8th) with a visit to Pui Tak Center and the Chinese American Museum of Chicago. The Lunar New Year parade celebrates the Year of the Monkey on Sunday February 14th at 1 PM.