Inside of Pilsen Community Books. Credit: Kayla Bickham

Pilsen Community Books, founded in 2016, made a historical shift in 2020. That March, the shop became Chicago’s only employee-owned and operated independent bookstore. Mandy Medley, who has worked in bookstores for many years, ten of which have been in Chicago, is one of the store’s three owners.

When the store went up for sale in 2019, its former owners found it imperative that the cozy shop on 18th Street landed in hands that were passionate about bookselling. As career booksellers, Medley and her friends made the decision to buy the store and to run it in a meaningful way.

“We wanted to try to model a different way of owning a business, where the workers own the whole store and are entitled to the profits they make to [be] split equally,” Medley said.

“The current business model under capitalism is not sustainable for the people who actually put in the work to build the ‘things,’ more specifically the book industry.”

“My colleagues and I have been selling books our whole adult lives,” she added, “but the book industry more often than not just pays minimum wage. And that doesn’t reflect the labor that we do, the amount of expertise that we have, and our passion for this.”

Passion considered, the shop is more than just a place to purchase books. As organizers themselves, Medley said that they find it important to open up their space to other organizers. All of their merchandise is union-printed and designed by artists from Chicago. The store changed hands just ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a slow reopening, but despite this the owners still strive to be a resource for community members. Medley even offered the space to me and anyone I know as we spoke.

“We want people to know that this is what it’s for. So we’ve had film screenings here, we’ve had fundraisers here, we’ve had banners and sign making here, we’ve had button making here for union drives,” Medley said. “We also try to come out very publicly in support of different struggles here in Chicago, but also things like Stop Cop City [in Atlanta], or the fight for abortion rights.”

What caught my eye about Pilsen Community Books last year was their book subscription, Seeds of Change. Oftentimes, those looking to learn more about organizing work and radical movements question where to start and what books to read. Seeds of Change offers six books of introductory radical literature delivered on a bimonthly subscription cycle. The store also offers a subscription called Bread and Roses, which pairs a historical or theory-based radical text with a book of fiction, poetry, or drama as a complement.

“We send those out every other month,” Medley said, “and even if you’re not subscribed, we announce it on social media, so everyone can read along together.”

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Books are powerful tools and gateways to different worlds. When spaces like libraries and bookstores are stewarded with the communities they serve in mind, the result can be extremely impactful. Like many bookworms, Medley fell in love with reading when she was young, and her passion is fueled by helping others discover whatever they may be searching for.

“It sounds so cheesy, but I fell in love with being in a physical space with books and with people who are passionate enough to come and seek them out,” she said. As we chatted, she took a moment to assist a patron that walked in. Medley recognized them immediately and rejoiced that they’d come to pick up a book they had ordered online.

“One of my other favorite things is having conversations with organizers that come in. They’re looking for a book on a certain topic or a certain period in radical history and hearing about the organizing that they’re doing and what they’re doing in their community,” Medley said. “That is my absolute favorite part. It makes me feel so much more connected to people who are fighting for a better world.”

According to Medley, no one goes into bookselling for the money, because there’s not much to be made. But places like Pilsen Community Books are reminders that we are made rich by the connections we forge with one another.

“It’s just irreplaceable to me, and it speaks so much to the way I want to live,” she said. “I feel like it’s such an honor to be able to be a guardian of this space and do it for a living.”

The store is open seven days a week. “I always love to hear, again, what folks are working on and organizing around and what other people are reading,” Medley said. “So please come in and talk to us.”

Pilsen Community Books, 1102 W. 18th St,, @pilsencommunitybooks.

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Chima Ikoro is South Side Weekly’s Community Builder.

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