Speaking Volumes: Rebecca George, Co-Owner of Volumes Bookcafe

The New Local: Volumes Bookcafe was started by you and your sister, but before this, you were both in academia. What prompted you to open up a book shop?

Rebecca George: My sister was working in early childhood, and she got to the point where she was the director of a preschool and hit a ceiling – basically there was nowhere to move up from there. For me, I was working as an adjunct and just killing myself teaching classes all over the place and making nothing.


I was about to go get my Ph. D, and then I decided that was really stupid because a lot of my colleagues were doing exactly what I was doing with two Masters and making no money.

I decided to step back and kind of rethink my life.


I came across an article about Greenlight Bookstore in New York Magazine about "how much does it cost to open a bookstore?" Then I started doing more research into the resurgence of indie bookstores. There's actually this pervasive thought that bookstores are dying, but 90-something just opened in the last year. Books are on the rise, and e-books are on the decline.


So we started looking at locations in 2014, and we talked with a couple of locations in the neighborhood. We finally found this space, and I think we picked up our keys to the place in March 2015 and we open a year later in March of 2016 – almost to the week.


TNL: Why Wicker Park to open a business?

RG: I like used bookstores, but I want the new thing from new authors, and I hated having to go outside of my neighborhood to make that happen.


I feel – and I've proven this right – that Wicker Park needed a little bit of togetherness or a place that felt like there was some community. You don't even know who your neighbors are in your building sometimes, and it's good to have a place where people know you and you feel safe.

TNL: When it comes to what you called the newness of authors and literature, how do you curate your shelves? What goes into that?

RG: There's a lot that goes into it. We are usually planning several months ahead. We get advanced reader copies (ARC) of books – books that are coming out in March, April, May, June, July and August.


We go through things we're interested in. Sometimes, I like to try to challenge people to go to things that they don't normally read.


Wicker Park is really unique as far as what they read. Things that are on The New York Times bestseller list, Wicker Park won't touch.


TNL: So then what determines what you bring in?

RG: We get these ARCs sent to us from all the different publishers. We also meet with publishers a few times a year, especially the big five. I meet with McMillan, I meet with three different Penguin Random House people, HarperCollins, Hachette.


On top of it, small presses send us stuff directly because they know that we're going to get behind those books. I really like indie publishers because they take risks and that's what we like.


TNL: On the note of indie publishers, what is "Dorothy: A Publishing Project", and how is it affiliated with Volumes? What about other small publishers?

RG: We support everything that they do. I think we're one of the few places in the city where you can get Ugly Duckling stuff. We have a deal with them where they send us a couple copies of their entire season every season, and we just make sure we promo and really put our hats behind that because that's really beautiful work that they do there.


Dorothy is great, there's also Featherproof, which is local. Two Dollar Radio is just knocking out of the park lately, and always.


The pieces that they're taking risks on and picking up are great. It's mostly debut or like a weird side project for maybe not a debut author, but their publishing house probably wouldn't let them do that particular weird thing.

TNL: Why did you incorporate the cafe aspect to the store?

RG: A couple of reasons. Number one, the margins are great. Bookstores, and I don't think a lot of people understand this, are one of the most unique industries in the world. Book [prices] are set, and that price is set on the book, which means my margins are set, and those margins are tight.


Coffee helps with that. Coffee also goes with books, you know.


Then with all the events and things that we do, it adds to it and creates a different kind of atmosphere to have wine while you're listening to an author.


TNL: Where do you source your coffee [and other cafe goods] from?

RG: Metropolis, which is a local roaster. Dollop does most of our baked goods, which is also local, but he's expanding.


Beer – if it's not Chicago local, it's Midwest. People really want what they know the name of, so you have to have this balance of weird stuff and what they recognize. With wine, you can't get that local obviously, but we pick ones we really think we can get behind.


TNL: You mentioned events. What goes into a month's worth of events?

RG: A lot. We're lucky because we have a lot of things that have foundation.


Our open mic has a really good following, so does our our Storytelling series, which Ada Cheng curates. You Joke Like a Girl doesn't need much advertising, and it's always packed.


Story Time! is twice a week, and on Wednesdays it's insane – there's like, 30 kids in here with nannies and strollers.


Our book clubs are what I call the "one-night stands of book clubs" – you could do it one month and not the next. There's no buy-in, we just pick books we think people should read, so that changes based on how we're feeling month to month.


Trivia is every week. We used to run it, but now we have a group who took it over.


TNL: So it's a third party company that comes in to facilitate it?

RG: They're actually locals who used to come to trivia all the time, and then they were worried because one of our staff who used to run it was leaving and I was thinking about bringing it down to once a month because it's so much work to create all the questions from scratch. Two people popped in and said they'd love to do it, and they're been doing it ever since!


TNL: What are some of your favorite things to read?

RG: I like literary fiction, that's my background. I do like pop science-y books like Mary Roach, Bill Bryson, Malcolm Gladwell. Those are fun, interesting reads.


My obsession is anything that has to do with time or time travel. My staff knows "that is the book that Rebecca will pick up". Whether its fiction or nonfiction, I have to read about it.


I have noticed I enjoy, every now and then, picking up a middle-grade book. I think they're doing really interesting, cute, fun things, and you can read it so quick. It's a really good palette cleanser, and I think more adults should read middle-grade books. It's good perspective and it's a good way of thinking of how kids are thinking today. I think parents would do themselves a great service by picking up whatever they're kids are reading.


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1474 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Chicago, IL


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