Stuart Brent Books was a magical bookstore on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, owned and managed by the strange and wonderful Stuart Brent. Both are gone now, but a week doesn’t go by that I don’t wish I could go back.
I grew up a few miles away, believing that there was an unbridgeable gap between the Magnificent Mile and me. I was the first in my family to graduate college, and great literature and the world of knowledge had a romantic grip on my head and my heart. But my working class upbringing and manners made me feel disqualified for what I first saw through that bookstore window – the interior was a wonderland of gleaming wood shelves, and pricey oriental rugs, while classical music made its way out to me on the sidewalk. Peering inside, I spied gigantic hardcover art books the likes of which I had never seen. I didn’t even know luxury books existed, though I didn’t think they were for me since I was not a part of the culturally and financially elite.
But apparently Stuart Brent himself didn’t make such class distinctions, because one day he walked out of the store, brusquely took my arm, and ushered me in.
An independent bookseller in Chicago for 50 years, Stuart opened his first bookstore in 1947 and closed Stuart Brent Books on Michigan Avenue in 1996, retiring to a farm in Wisconsin and passing away in 2010 at the age of 98.
The store was a wonderland of literary delights. Upstairs was filled with highbrow and prestigious hardcovers, while the basement housed a small children’s section and a carefully curated selection of paperbacks that ignored all bestseller lists.
At Stuart Brent Books, you could peruse your authors from A to Z, confident in the knowledge that all the books were worth your time. Often the book of the moment wasn’t available there at all. Popular books that didn’t earn the stamp of merit from Stuart weren’t allowed.
It is very hard to separate Stuart Brent Books from Stuart himself, as a visit there was very much a package deal. Almost every newspaper article describes the two in reverential terms – “messianic”, “evangelical”, “a place of pilgrimage.” When rising rents threatened the store’s existence, the Chicago Tribune editorialized: …”the displacement of a great bookstore is like the razing of a chapel.” And a note received from author and educator Richard Stern when the store’s closing was announced said, “You’ve not only been the synagogue of books, you’ve been my personal rabbi.”
All this religious devotion to a bookshop was not a random result. To Stuart, books were sacred, “I demanded that customers buy books for the same reasons that I sold them – out of a serious regard for greatness.”
Stuart Brent was short in stature but larger than life. He was a character, in all the best ways. He once drunkenly tried to break down the front wall of his storefront in order to bring in a grand piano for Louis Armstrong, only to be arrested for his trouble. He hobnobbed with the literary elite, friends with writers Studs Terkel, Saul Bellow, and Nelson Algren, but also with customers like Zero Mostel and Don Ameche.
Stuart, his passion for books, and the bookstore he created had quite an impact on those who knew him, described as such:
“He was a cross between a Chicago intellectual and Persian rug dealer.” -Phillip Roth
“not merely a merchant but literature’s self-appointed local guardian”- Chicago Tribune
And in the words of another Chicago celebrity, irreverent newspaper columnist Mike Royko, high praise indeed: “As bookstores go, it is a classy joint.”
But to me, the most telling quote about Stuart is actually from Stuart himself, as he prepared to close the bookstore once and for all: “I’ve done a hell of a job. I kept literature alive in Chicago for 50 years. I know I did it.”