Comic Shop Focus: Quimby’s Chicago, IL

Categories:  Features, Interviews

“I feel like we do have a good comic community here,” answers the bearded, wire-rimmed cashier in the airbrushed tiger shirt. “There are a lot of artists. It’s kind of weird how it all comes together in Chicago.” Logan Bay is in good company, at the moment, seated behind Quimby’s front desk, flanked from above by a pair of signs hand-painted by local cartooning genius, Chris Ware.

The one directly above his head is the now-familiar image the store has since adopted as a logo, a Siamese-split Quimby Mouse torn between a blank-faced red book and that general sense of ennui that permeates so much of Ware’s work. A fitting representation, perhaps of the dual Quimbies now forever joined at the hip in this store front on Chicago’s North Avenue.

First there was the Boston Quimby, a magazine launched in 1985, by one Steven Svymbersky, related in no perceivable manner beyond, perhaps, the cosmically synchronous, to the schizophrenic mouse that would be created half a country and decade away by University of Texas at Austin student, Ware. Through the unique brand of serendipity that only seems to occur in magical lands like Chicago, however, both would converge midway at the beginning of the next decade.

In 1991, Svymbersky opened a storefront on Chicago’s Damen Ave (next door to spiritually kindred alternative book seller, Myopic), borrowing the name from his then-defunct ‘zine. “During the early ‘90s,” explains Bay, “when Steven moved here and opened the store, that was when it was like Chris, [Dan] Clowes, and all of those guys. When Steven moved to Amsterdam, [Chicago Comics owner] Eric Kirsammer bought the store. Eric was friends with Chris, and so he let us use his art and came and hand painted the signs.”

Soon after, the store switched locations, moving a few blocks away to W. North St., even deeper into a neighborhood Bay describes as a conversion of artistry and nail saloons. “This is kind of Wicker Park or Buck Town,” he explains, “depending on which real estate group you listen.”

Tasked with briefly summing up some overarching mission statement for the store, Bay points to another big sign, directly to the left of the logo. “I think the Chris Ware sign is kind of the mantra—unusual fun stuff,” he answers.

In typically Wareian old-timey ad speak, the sign reads,

Specialists in the importation, distribution, and sale of: Unusual publications, aberrant periodicals, saucy comic booklets, and assorted fancies, as well as a comprehensive miscellany of the latest independent ‘zines’ that all the kids have been talking about.

Guarenteed to satisfy the soul beaten flat by our mainstream culture’s relentless insistence on dumb pictures and insulting syntax.

It’s exactly that sense of well-worded counter-cultural whimsy that has put Quimby’s high atop the shortlist of obligatory destinations for a visit to the second city, just under, perhaps that big black tower, four miles away (which, incidentally, unlike the store, didn’t manage to make it into my itinerary during my three short days in the city, however, I did  sneak in a next and final stop at Lakeview’s Uncle Fun, which came highly recommended, and, for my nickel, beats a big old building, any day of the week). Quimby’s focus on small press is a mandate as much as a mission statement, and as such, the store has a selection of photocopied ‘zines and that dwarfs even the most fiercely independent shops out there.

“It’s always been comic and ‘zine focused, and that’s probably still our biggest thing, because we take anything on consignment,” explains Bay. “I just got back from London, and our ‘zine selection, even though it’s not comprehensive, is probably more wall space than I’ve seen anywhere else. But at the same time, it doesn’t mean that giving a lot of wall space to ‘zines is actually the best fiscal decision for us.”

However, in a store populated by decipated mouse toys, the mounted head of a jackalope, and a black white photo booth sporting a headshot of a Vegas-era Elvis, it’s the off-beat that keeps Quimby’s thriving. “I think the reason everything works here is because we carry stuff that we know will sell like Miranda July and Watchmen, but we also give space to unusual stuff,” explains Bay. “We got this book based on a blog with fan-fiction revolving around Roy Orbison wrapped in cling-wrap. He made a book of all of those stories and sent it to us. It’s one of those things that real exciting when it arrives. There are very few places in the world that you can walk into and see that book about Roy Orbison wrapped in cling-film, right next to the Dave Eggers. It’s moments like that that remind us why we’re still kicking.”

–Brian Heater

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