WICKER PARK — When JR Nelson and Matt Revers moved to Chicago, they both made their way to Myopic Books in Wicker Park.
For Nelson, it was the mid-1990s when the store was on Division Street.
“I kind of pestered the owner endlessly… for a job. And it was only six or seven years before I finally got a job, and I was so excited,” Nelson said. “When I arrived in Chicago, I knew right away that I wanted to be here.”
Revers visited the store at its current location, 1564 N. Milwaukee Ave., in 2011. He, too, knew immediately that he needed to work there.
“It was the first place I handed in a CV and didn’t hear anything. I had two jobs, the first thing I could get, so to speak. And then I got the call asking if I wanted to work part-time here, and that became Job #3 for a while,” Revers said. “I’ve been working here ever since.”
After selling and buying thousands of books at the three-story, cluttered bookstore and enduring two years of a pandemic and an increasingly unaffordable neighborhood, Revers and Nelson have new job titles: co-owner.
Earlier this week, the duo completed the purchase of Rita Clark’s bookstore, which has been owned by Myopic for the past 11 years.
As they take over an institution familiar to readers in Chicago and across the United States, they both feel an obligation to keep the bookstore the special, beloved place it has been for 30 years – a place that will stay here.
“We want to have the best curated collection of fine books in town and create an atmosphere here where everyone feels comfortable and part of a community, a family, whatever you want to call it, to find them. To get book lovers to the books they want. That’s it. That’s why we’re here,” Nelson said.
Ever since it opened in the early ’90s, Myopic has bounced around Wicker Park.
His current home, with its large hanging sign, has become a defining part of Wicker Park’s streetscape and a symbol of the neighborhood’s history as a center for arts and culture.
Myopic is one of a dwindling 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 anniversary last year, and newer stores like Semicolon and Volumes.
“That’s great because then you have one goal for everyone,” Nelson said. “They go from one place to another place to another place. It’s great, couldn’t be better.”
One of the biggest draws for customers continues to be Myopic’s revolving inventory. Almost all books come from people stopping by the store to sell them, resulting in an always diverse mix of virtually every genre, Revers said.
“There is no such thing as an algorithm feeding you recommendations here. … There’s a very good chance you’ll stumble upon a book that you’ve never seen in your life,” Revers said. “I think I see a book every week that I’ve never seen before and I’ve been working here for 10 years.”
While the store doesn’t always stock a specific title, it does have a wide selection — it stocks around 60,000 books, Nelson said.
“Sometimes we get a whole bunch of different books on one subject; we’re going to buy a whole section of cult books or alternative health,” Nelson said. “And a section is just going to be like, boom, it’s going to explode and word is going to get around and people are going to all come in. And then they grab them and then we get another collection and it all starts over. It’s like a cycle of life. It’s really fascinating to watch.”
Revers and Nelson commended Clark for appreciating the eclectic spirit of the store and making sure Myopic is cared for by people who do, too.
“She was someone who valued the store’s institutional memory. And I think she wanted us to continue that,” Nelson said. “COVID has been tough on any small business; Being nearsighted had its own challenges. Rita always kept the faith and somehow guided us through this time. And that’s why we’re here now. … It’s really important for us to honor that and I think she knows we’re going to honor that.”
Nelson and Revers said they have no major changes planned for Myopic. They are excited and passionate about the opportunity and they recognize what is at stake, what they set out to do.
When Myopic closed for a few months at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, Nelson came in to check the building and leave his home almost every day.
Nelson said he would sit behind the counter and watch people walk by, looking inside and sometimes trying to open the door to see if the store was open. It underscored the bookstore’s place in the community for Nelson and reminded him why he has worked there for nearly 20 years.
“They just waved at me or made a gesture. It was just an amazing feeling,” he said. “That’s why we’re here. That people see that, that they know why we’re here, and that’s just an incredible feeling. I think our challenge is to just keep going.”
Myopic Books is open daily from 12pm to 8pm.
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