Events

Book Smarts—An Interview with Pilsen Community Books’ New Owners

Until recently, Pilsen Community Books was operated by owners Mary Gibbons and Aaron Lippelt. Current part-owner Katharine Solheim shares what’s changing and what will stay the same at the shop.

Photo Credit to Steel Brooks—steelbrooks.com

Pilsen Community Books
1102 W 18th St, Chicago, IL

Give me a description of the store and what it brings to the neighborhood.

Pilsen Community Books is a new and used bookstore located in the heart of Pilsen’s historic 18th Street corridor. The shop’s original owners, Mary Gibbons and Aaron Lippelt, opened PCB in February of 2016. Aaron and Mary built a beautiful storefront filled with light, charm, and fine quality used books.

In its next chapter, we plan to maintain the PCB’s signature charm. That said, big changes are in store for the shop! PCB is now unique in that we are dedicated to a non-hierarchical, worker-owned and -operated model. We plan to refine PCB’s focus to feature titles and in-store events relating to social justice, highlighting books that not only inspire empathy but spur readers to action. Both our business model and our plans for the store reflect our belief in the revolutionary power of restoring dignity to workers.

Working collaboratively with our community is a priority for us. We hope to stock the shop with books and bring events into the shop that speak to the interests of Pilsen’s long-time residents.

I interviewed previous store owner Mary Gibbons about the store a year or so ago. What’s happened since then?

Aaron and Mary became overwhelmed with running both Pilsen Community Books and its sister store, The Dial Bookshop. In July of 2019, they listed Pilsen Community Books for sale. Mandy and Katharine had dreamed of co-owning a worker run bookstore years earlier when we were both employed by Unabridged Bookstore in Lakeview. While doing our due diligence, we realized we’d have trouble running the shop with just two people. Fellow career bookseller Tom Flynn had also expressed an interest in purchasing the shop to Aaron and Mary. After determining that the three of us shared a vision for what we wanted PCB to become, we built a business plan and bit the bullet in early October 2019.

Tell me a bit about you, the new owners, and your bookish histories.

Katharine Solheim began working at a Barnes and Noble in high school and worked there part time throughout putting herself through college at UIC. After she completed her bachelor’s degree, she got a job at Lakeview’s legendary Unabridged Bookstore, where she worked as a frontlist and remainder buyer, events coordinator, and book club moderator (among other things). She has developed the omnivorous tastes of a bookstore buyer, but when left to her own devices she reads literary fiction with a focus on translated and experimental literature. She gravitates toward elegiac novels about time, memory, and death, or hybrid texts that incorporate visual and/or auto-fictional elements. Her favorite books are ones that challenge her expectations and force her to look at the world in a new way.

Tom Flynn worked for Volumes Bookcafe in Wicker Park since the store opened in March 2016, serving as manager and lead buyer. Prior to that he worked for the Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Hyde Park for over a decade, starting as a bookseller before taking on the roles of events coordinator and manager of and buyer for the 57th Street Books location.

Mandy Medley worked at Powell’s Chicago as a used/antiquarian book buyer and events coordinator for three years before moving on to Unabridged Bookstore in Lakeview and then Coffee House Press in Minneapolis. She is currently director at Nectar Literary and is excited to continue her literary publicity work at the firm in addition to her duties at PCB. Originally from Georgia, she is proud to call the Midwest her home.

Photo Credit to Steel Brooks—steelbrooks.com

What plans do you have for the place? What will you keep doing and what brand-new innovations are coming?

We already have so many amazing things in the works for PCB, including a spring events calendar loaded with amazing in-store author appearances. We are particularly excited to welcome Mark Nowak to the shop for the launch of his new book, Social Poetics. Nowak is a poet and labor activist who Adrienne Rich described as “regenerating the rich tradition of working-class literature.” Mark will appear in conversation with Tara Betts on March 13.

Aaron and Mary instituted an amazing program at PCB called Pilsen Reads that provides boxes of books to local classrooms. We’re looking forward to maintaining and eventually expanding this program. We also plan to bring back bilingual story time.

We are in the midst of refining the focus of PCB, bringing in more titles related to social justice and translated literature. We’ll be shifting the store’s stock and breaking out some new sections over the coming months, so please don’t hesitate to ask if you need help finding anything at PCB 2.0!

When someone stops by the store, what will they find each of you reading behind the counter?

Would that booksellers had time to read at work! If we did, here’s what you’d find us reading at the moment:

Tom: A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire by Yuri Herrera, from And Other Stories. Anything And Other Stories brings out is worth checking out and Yuri Herrera in particular is just a fantastic, fascinating writer. Very interested in diving into a work of nonfiction from him.

Katharine: Hilary Leichter’s Temporary, a playful novel that inquires into the nature of work a late capitalist age (Hilary will appear at PCB in conversation with Catherine Lacey on March 26).

Mandy: Gail Scott’s Heroine, which was recently reissued by the great Coach House Press. It’s an experimental novel of radical feminism from a time that was, in many ways, not too dissimilar to our own.

Is there anything I haven’t asked that you wish I had asked?

I think this gives you the lay of the land! Thanks for reaching out for the interview, we appreciate it.

Book Smarts will be an irregularly ongoing series of interviews with Chicago bookstore owners. Please send tips on booksellers who deserve attention to Lit editor Dan Kelly at dan@mrdankelly.com.

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