Unexpected Venture Into Heirloom Books

How an impromptu interview led me to a hidden gem in Edgewater

Early this Sunday morning, I was pleasantly surprised by a DM from my co-worker, Boe Chmil, who was asking for help on a documentary shoot at a nearby bookstore.

The only problem was that I was already planning on working on my own projects with Small Town Chicago, and since when do I go to a bookstore?

I was feeling spontaneous though, as the mundanity of this pandemic just made me excited for another excuse to leave my apartment. 

Chmil and I negotiated a time and once I was done with my own work I headed to Heirloom Books on 6239 N Clark St. 

I was met with another pleasant surprise. Next to Helix Cafe, I found the bookstore to be a charming nook of character with a beautiful story of love and community. 

Throughout Chmil’s interview with the Heirloom’s primary caretaker, Erik Graff, the store clerk would pause to welcome customers, asking if they, “knew the drill.” 

There’s a drill?

“What’s the the drill,” I asked. 

My inquiry led to a personal tour of the store from Graff, who showed me its unique layout, special color coding system, and of course, their books.   

It may be small, but Heirloom is pure of wonders. Its labyrinth of second-hand books on a wide variety of topics stretch every corner of the human psyche. Their bookshelves, tall and short, hold history’s weight with texts that are over a 100 years old like The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex by Charles Darwin from 1871. Heirloom has also been a hub for artists, minority groups, and many others to contemplate and discuss new ways of thought and being. 

An inside look at Heirloom's labyrinth of literature. Pictures by Boe Chmil

Now I’ll admit, I’m far from a bookworm, which is what made this experience so special. Most of my book purchases have taken place in stores like Barnes and Noble, who have an adequate experience, but lack character with a selection of mass produced and predictable reads that all claim that unoriginal title of “New York Times Best Seller.”

I was sincerely refreshed to find a unique array of books along with a unique experience from people who truly cared about serving their community through literature and an open sharing of ideas.   

Graff explained that the location opened four years ago, in April of 2017, by Northwestern alum Chelsea Carr. 

For three years, Carr modestly ran the store with the help from Graff as a volunteer. As a longtime germaphobe, Carr decided to shut down the location by the time COVID-19 became a worldwide epidemic.

This meant Heirloom was closed for most of the summer until August, when its reopening was sadly prompted by Carr’s death, after a long-term illness, at just 29-years-old.

Since then, Graff has happily volunteered his time to run the store and take care of its customers.

What’s so special about Heirloom is the community of people who have wholeheartedly contributed to its survival at the wake of Carr’s passing. Family members and local businesses, like Green Element and others in the Rogers Park and Edgewater areas have unreluctantly picked up responsibilities in the business that Graff wouldn’t be able to complete on his own.

Their GoFundMe page, which uses the short-documentary on the store produced by Chmil in 2019, has now raised nearly $18,000 to hold the bookstore afloat and keep Carr’s legacy alive.

With an increase in coverage from local news outlets, Heirloom’s humble story is now attracting more customers than ever. Much like me, people from all over Chicago have ventured to visit the quaint little shop, only to find pure joy in scavenging their alleyway bookshelves for a new read.

Before I left I made sure to purchase some of my favorite finds, like a textbook sized manual on Directing the Documentary by Michal Rabiger, and Film Studies by Warren Buckland.

In the future, Heirloom Books hopes to become a not-for-profit organization and donate their revenue to other businesses in the area, like Archie’s Café, who also run their own community centered programs.

You can visit Heirloom Books on 6239 N Clark St. every day from 12 to 7 p.m.   

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