Chesterton Tribune



The romance of the used book: O'Gara & Wilson opens in town

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O’Gara & Wilson opens: Doug and Jill Wilson, owners of O’Gara & Wilson Ltd., formerly of Hyde Park, Chicago, with some of the thousand-score used and antiquarian books for sale at their shop at 223 Broadway. O’Gara & Wilson’s lineage as a bookseller can be traced back more than a century. (Tribune photo by Kevin Nevers)



Consider the used book.

Consider, say, this one: The Man-Eaters of Kumaon, the memoir of the legendary tiger hunter and old India hand Lt. Col. Jim Corbett, published in 1946 and purchased second-hand--or, possibly, third- or fourth-hand--in 2001, on a whim at a flea market cum body shop in Titusville, Fla.

In truth it’s a marvelous read. Corbett’s quarry is cunning and lethal, with hundreds of human kills to their credit, and Corbett hunts them alone and on foot at great peril. He’s a serviceable writer, tells his story with admirable understatement, and conjures a time when a man with a taste for adventure could find it easily enough in the backwaters of the British Empire.

For a moment, though, think of this book not just as a read but as an artifact, a physical object handled and collected and treasured by who knows whom and how many, read perhaps in the saloon of an ocean liner, or packed in a traveling salesman’s valise, or lost in the Omaha Greyhound station to find a new home in Saginaw or Akron or Moline. Old books have their own secret histories, exotic or mundane but always intimate, for once upon a time their owners loved them and left something of themselves in their pages, some crumb of psychic residue, some glint of dream or shadow of fear, were we only able to see it.

So read Corbett’s memoir, by the light of a fire of a winter’s evening, and know its ghosts are reading over your shoulder.

As it happens, another copy of The Man-Eaters of Kumaon is currently available--with 20,000 other such artifacts--at O’Gara & Wilson Ltd., once Chicago’s oldest bookseller and now, at 223 Broadway, Chesterton’s newest (and only) bookseller.

Owned by Doug and Jill Wilson of Chesterton, O’Gara & Wilson is a defiant throwback to independent booksellers, before Barnes & Noble throttled the market; to brick-and-mortar booksellers, before destroyed the romance of browsing; and to old-school booksellers, when a man learned the trade--as Doug Wilson himself learned it--by apprenticing.

Wilson’s mentor, Joseph O’Gara, had been selling books since 1937--and operating in Hyde Park since the early Sixties--when Wilson apprenticed himself to O’Gara at 23, just as O’Gara had once apprenticed himself to Nedwick and Nedwick had to Donahue, in a lineage traceable to the 1890s. O’Gara “saw it as an opportunity to pass the torch so there would still be well-trained booksellers,” Wilson recalls. “You get a certain practiced eye from apprenticing and a depth of knowledge hard to learn any other way.”

Over time Wilson acquired a share of the business and then, in 1995-96, bought it outright from O’Gara on the latter’s retirement. And until this year he and Jill had been operating on East 57th Street in Hyde Park and making a go of it--Doug doing the buying, Jill running the shop--until a perfect storm of recession and bureaucratic connivance convinced them to flee Chicago.

Among other things, Wilson cites “the malaise of the local economy in Hyde Park,” which--he hastens to add--“we’re not feeling now that we’re out here.” Too many regular customers simply stopped coming, just to avoid the temptation to spend money they didn’t have. The University of Chicago students stopped coming too, after UC--“to protect students from random street crime”--began bussing them back and forth between campus and the residence halls. A traditionally reliable source of foot traffic simply vanished.

Wilson is positively bitter, however, about the officiousness of the City of Chicago’s officialdom, in its apparent bent “to create a toxic atmosphere for small business.” Property-tax spikes which were killing his landlord. Parking regulations almost calculated to add a $50 surcharge--in the form of a ticket--to the cost of a $20 book. “Trumped up” and “preposterous” fees--for awnings, for air-conditioning inspections--which smacked to Wilson’s mind of the old Chicago protection rackets. “If you don’t pay them, when you apply for your business license the next year you won’t get it. So I rolled over for city hall. And I saw which way it was going and I resented deeply that they kept finding new ways to pick my pocket.”

Meanwhile, living in Chesterton, the Wilsons “saw the town’s business-friendly policies,” made note of the thriving European Market, and visited “the very cute and prosperous stores that we still have here a year later after they opened.”

So when 223 Broadway went vacant, they leaped at the opportunity. “Every instinct we have--just a gut feeling, but you have to take the plunge at some point--is that Duneland can support the shop,” Wilson says. “And we’ve been getting an incredibly welcome and exuberant reception from the community and we’re very thankful.”

The Shop

Wilson describes O’Gara & Wilson as a “general used and antiquarian bookshop.”

“We’ve always tried to be all things to all people,” Wilson says. “Anyone who comes in with a reasonable interest, we want to cater to.” The shop thus features fine selections of fiction and literature, including mysteries and classic sci fi; extensive offerings in Americana and in British, European, and military history; the customary shelves in psychology, science, religion, and political science; a few more unusual sections devoted to music, art, chess, and architecture; and a superb collection of global anthropology, foreign affairs, and travel.

There are the rarities, naturally, which will appeal to bibliophiles. But bookworms for whom the artifact itself is as valuable as the read--who cherish oddities for the sake of their oddness and well-thumbed volumes for the sake of their ghosts--will find rare jewels here, will stumble on them as the archaeologist stumbles on Greek friezes and Roman coins. That won’t happen on the Internet. Because, as Wilson notes, there’s really no browsing on and “you can’t find a book if you don’t know it exists.”

And O’Gara & Wilson is a wonderful place to browse. Hardwood floored, brick walled, well lit and airy yet with that faint musty tang beloved of bookworms, the shop has the intimate feel of someone’s private library, if that someone were eclectic and a little eccentric.

See if you can find these choice volumes. Pluto’s Chain (Moscow, 1971) by Russian vulcanologist Y. Markhinin, on the volcanic geology of the Kamchatka Peninsula. A 1967 reprint of Two Trips to Gorilla Land (1876) by the magnificent Victorian explorer Richard Burton. The Uniform of Glory (1949) by P.C. Wren, another but more obscure Foreign Legion romp by the author of Beau Geste. Jailbait! The Story of Juvenile Delinquency (1949) by William Bernard, because who wouldn’t want to own a book with the word jailbait in the title? And more Sax Rohmer than you can shake a stick at.

“There is a need to make a living,” Wilson says. “And I’ve been fortunate to make a living doing what I love. It can be rough, a hand-to-mouth existence. But beyond the pragmatic need to eat, there’s something booksellers do to enrich culture at large that would be lost without this kind of shop.”

Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday. Call (219) 728-1326.



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Posted 10/3/2013