The story of 57th Street Books began with Devereux Bowly in 1982 and continued with him until just a few months ago. Dev, as everybody called him, was the owner of the apartment building at 1301 East 57th Street in Hyde Park, occupying the south-east corner of Kimbark Avenue and 57th Street. He passed away on August 6, at the age of seventy-one.
I knew and worked with Dev Bowly for over thirty years. For many years I managed the Seminary Co-op Bookstores, and we rented space in the basement of Dev’s building. Dev was my landlord, as I worked with him at that location, but describing him in that way simply fails to do him justice. He was a landlord like no other, and without him there would have been no 57th Street Books.
Dev called me at the old Seminary Co-op location in the fall of 1982 and asked if we could meet, as he had a proposal for us at the Co-op. A few days later we met at his building, and he made a strong case that the Co-op should consider opening a store in his basement, which then comprised of four distinct, non-connecting rooms, totaling about 4,000 square feet. He proposed a bookstore with a wide-ranging inventory and aimed at a customer base beyond the University clientele, indeed beyond just Hyde Park. He and I talked that morning about a bookstore with Hyde Park customers as its base, but one that reached out to encompass the entire South Side, and more.
I had always felt that the Co-op’s goal should be to operate the best bookstore possible, one that tried every day to live up to the expectations of its extraordinarily demanding (and appreciative) customers. I knew we could never be as good as our customers expected us to be, but we could certainly get closer and closer to that ideal, and the closer we got to what our unique neighborhood wanted in a bookseller, the more likely we would be to attract customers from outside our neighborhood.
Dev’s suggestion of a location on 57th Street, in a block of shops and restaurants with a lot of foot traffic, some parking, near the University yet distinct from campus, seemed the perfect next step for the Co-operative. Moreover, Dev and I seemed to share the same feelings about what a bookstore should be.
I don’t think any of us at the Co-op had ever thought about a second location until Dev suggested it, but his enthusiasm for us as tenants got us thinking and acting. We had to decide what sort of inventory we should carry, how it should differ from the store then at 5757 S. University (now at 5751 S. Woodlawn), what name the store should have, how we would staff it, how we could build everything, how we could finance the expansion and the considerable renovations we needed, what sort of lease terms both Dev and the Co-op could agree to, and untold other things. After we came up with some answers, the board of the Co-op gave its go-ahead with the aim of opening in the fall of 1983.
The lease was signed in the spring of 1983, and from that moment on Dev showed himself to be an enthusiastic, thoughtful, self-effacing yet genuinely unflagging advocate for 57th Street Books and the role he thought it should play in the neighborhood.
When Barack Obama published The Audacity of Hope in the fall of 2006, the nation’s signing event for the book was at 57th Street Books. Hundreds of people lined up early in the morning, and Dev had a picture of the event, taken by a Hyde Park Herald photographer, framed. It still hangs in the store.
In the fall of 2008, when Obama was elected president, I asked a Co-op employee to make up a banner for 57th Street’s window congratulating our president-elect (and Co-op member and customer) on his election. Photos of that banner appeared on television and in newspapers around the world. Dev and I had several conversations about the election, and it was clear how pleased he was with the bookstore’s connection to the president. We got a letter from the White House last October, on the occasion of 57th Street Books’s thirtieth birthday, with a hand-written note from the President: “We miss you guys!”
Over the past thirty years, millions of books have been bought at 57th Street Books, several thousand authors have stopped by, and many thousands of young people have been helped to develop a love of reading by the books and the booksellers at the store. None of this would have happened at the corner of 57th and Kimbark if Dev Bowly had not extended the invitation.
Dev was an attorney with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago for most of his working life. He was the author of The Poorhouse: Subsidized Housing in Chicago, and was a founder of the Hyde Park Historical Society. He was also the owner, restorer, and genius behind two beautiful inns near Lakeside, Michigan: The Gordon Beach Inn and Lakeside Inn. My understanding from Dev was that the rent we paid at 57th Street Books went toward the restoration of those inns, a true win-win situation. He was also one of the originators of the architectural tours given by what is now the Chicago Architecture Foundation, and a lead participant in several restoration projects in Hyde Park, South Shore, and Washington Park.
Dev was a great citizen of the city of Chicago and the Hyde Park neighborhood, and a landlord beyond compare. Two memorial services have been planned for Dev, the first on Saturday, November 1 at 2pm (CST), at the First Unitarian Church in Hyde Park, and the second on November 2 at 2pm (EST), at the Lakeside Inn in Lakeside, Michigan.