WICKER PARK – When JR Nelson and Matt Revers moved to Chicago, they both headed straight to Myopic Books in Wicker Park.
For Nelson, it was in the mid-’90s, when the store was on Division Street.
“I constantly pestered the owner… for a job. And it only took me six or seven years of hassle to finally get a job, and I was so excited,” Nelson said. “I knew as soon as I got to Chicago that this is where I wanted to be.”
Revers visited the store at its current location, 1564 N. Milwaukee Ave., in 2011. He, too, knew right away that he had to work there.
“This was the first place I left a resume and didn’t hear a thing. I was working two jobs, kind of the first thing I could get. And then I got the call to see if I wanted to work here part-time, and this became the No. 3 job for a little while,” Revers said. “I’ve been working here ever since.”
After selling and buying thousands of books in the packed three-story bookstore, and living through two years of a pandemic and an increasingly unaffordable neighborhood, Revers and Nelson have new job titles: co-owners.
Earlier this week, the duo finalized the purchase of the bookstore from Rita Clark, owner of Myopic for the past 11 years.
As they take over an institution well known to readers in Chicago and across the United States, both said they feel a responsibility to preserve the bookstore as the special and loved place it has been for 30 years, a place that is here to stay.
“We want to have the best collection of fine books in the city and create an atmosphere here where everyone feels comfortable and part of a community, a family, whatever you want to say, to find them. To bring book lovers to the books they want. That’s it. That’s why we’re here,” Nelson said.
Since its opening in the early ’90s, Myopic has bounced around Wicker Park.
His current home, with its large hanging sign, has become a defining part of the Wicker Park streetscape and a symbol of the neighborhood’s history as a center for arts and culture.
Myopic stands as one of a shrinking number of Wicker Park businesses that have survived years of gentrification and rising rents. Still, the neighborhood remains a hub for bookstores of all kinds, like Quimby’s, which celebrated its 30th birthday last year, and newer stores like Semicolon and Volumes.
“That’s great because then you have a destiny for everyone,” Nelson said. “They go from place to place to place. It’s great, it couldn’t be better.”
One of the biggest draws for customers remains Myopic’s rotating inventory. Nearly all of the books come from people who stop by the store to sell them, making for an ever-diverse mix of virtually every genre, Revers said.
“There’s nothing like an algorithm that gives you recommendations here. “There’s a very good chance you’ll stumble across a book you’ve never seen in your life,” Revers said. “I think every week I see a book I’ve never seen before, and I’ve been working here for 10 years.”
While the store may not always have a certain title in stock, it does have plenty to choose from: It has about 60,000 books, Nelson said.
“Sometimes we get a bunch of different books on one topic; we’ll buy a whole section of cult or alternative health books,” Nelson said. “And one section will be like, boom, it will explode and word will spread and all the people will come in. And then they put them together, and then we get another collection and it all starts again. It’s like a life cycle. It’s really fascinating to watch.”
Revers and Nelson praised Clark for appreciating the eclectic spirit of the store and making sure Myopic was served by people who do as well.
“He was someone who valued the institutional memory of the store. And I think she wanted us to continue with that,” Nelson said. “COVID was tough on all small businesses; Myopic had its own challenges. Rita always kept the faith and guided us through that period. And that is why we are here now. … It’s really important for us to honor that, and I think she knows that we should honor that.”
Nelson and Revers said they don’t have any big changes planned for Myopic. They are excited and passionate about the opportunity, and they realize the stakes in what they have taken on.
When Myopic closed for a few months at the start of the pandemic in 2020, Nelson came almost every day to check the building and leave his house.
Nelson said he would sit behind the counter and watch people walk by, looking in, sometimes peering out the door to see if the store was open. He underscored the bookstore’s place in the community for Nelson and reminded him why he worked there for almost 20 years.
“They waved at me or gestured to me. So, that was just an amazing feeling,” she said. That is why we are here. That people see that, that they know why we are here, and it is an incredible feeling. I think our challenge for that is just to keep it going.”
Myopic Books is open from noon to 8 pm every day.
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast”: