The Art of the Bookstore by Gibbs M. Smith

Krock’s and Brentano’s on Wabash in Chicago

The Art of the Bookstore: The Bookstore Paintings of Gibbs M. Smith (2009)

This book is the perfect gift for the serious bookstore lover in your life.  I came across it at work and couldn’t stop looking at it.

So I brought it home.

The book is a tribute to and celebration of some of the best bookstores in the country.  Sadly, more than a few have closed prior to or after this book’s publication in 2009.

Kroch’s and Brentano’s on Wabash in Chicago graces the cover.  This fantastic store is one of those that closed prior to the book’s publication.  I loved this bookstore and remember going with my Dad several times when I was a kid and also tagging along with my aunt a time or two as well.  I learned how to browse in that store as well as in my local library.  We also spent a lot of time in the Kroch’s and Brentano’s store in the Oak Brook shopping center (IL).  Sadly, the company went out of business in 1995.   Their roots date back to 1907 and at their height they had 22 stores in the Chicago area and were the largest privately owned book chain in the country.  A Wikipedia article that you can read here attributes the closing to the company’s “refusal” to sell books at a discount in order to compete with Crown Books when it moved into the area. 

Prairie Avenue Bookshop

Another Chicago bookstore featured in this book was considered the “mecca for all things architecture and design” and had the largest architectural holdings of any bookstore in the world.  Prairie Avenue Bookshop closed after publication of this book.  Smith painted the store in 2009, apparently prior to the closing announcement since there’s no mention of the closing in its accompanying entry.  Marilyn and Wilbert Hasbrouck tried to find a buyer for the store rather than closing it.  You can read an article about their decision to close here.  The Hasbroucks founded Prairie Avenue Press in 1961 and opened the bookstore in 1974.

There are 58 bookstores featured in The Art of the Bookstore and many of them are still in business.  Each store has a two page spread.  On the left hand page is a paragraph or page about the store: its history, description, and/or Smith’s experience with the store.  The history of some stores is written by its owner or founder.  Steve Riggio wrote the piece for Barnes & Noble at Union Square and firmly establishes that location as part of American literary history dating back to the nineteenth century.  On the right hand side of the page is Smith’s oil painting of the bookstore.

Ken Sanders Rare Books in Salt Lake City is the only store represented by a mixed media piece rather than one of Smith’s colorful oil pieces.  Ken Sanders writes the piece for his bookstore and it’s a book-affirming manifesto that declares, “If there was a God, his name was Biblio.”  He goes on to say,

In these early years of the twenty-first century, there has been an awful lot of talk about ‘the death of the book.’  What is being forgotten in this dialogue is that devotees of the book have always been on the margins of society–in modern society, book lovers are about as mainstream as druids. . . . The value of books transcends the informational, and while some of us in the book world will become extinct, the rest of us will always be here, doing what we have always done: loving books, keeping Biblio alive in the world.

I can’t wait to visit Mr. Sanders’ bookstore.

In addition to the brief histories and beautiful paintings, there are quotes that celebrate books and bookstores sprinkled throughout.

I’ve been to seven of the featured bookstores for sure, and possibly two or three more.  I’d have to read through my journals to confirm if I’ve really been to Warwick’s (La Jolla), Garcia Street Books (Sante Fe), and The Elliot Bay Book Company (Seattle) or if I’m just imagining it.

These I’ve been to for sure:

  • Borders store #1 (Ann Arbor)
  • Kroch’s and Brentano’s (Chicago)
  • City Lights Books (San Francisco)
  • Cody’s Books (Berkeley)
  • Prairie Avenue Bookshop (Chicago)
  • Powell’s Books (Portland)
  • Tattered Cover Book Store (Denver)

Smith’s short but enjoyable introduction describes how he came to love books and painting.  I have fallen in love with his colorful and vibrant paintings.  They give off an energy of excitement and anticipation that is much the same as the energy I feel when spotting a bookstore in a city I’m visiting or walking up to a well-known and much-loved bookstore.

Click here for a complete list of bookstores featured in The Art of the Bookstore.


  1. Wow, what a great book! I loved the Prairie Avenue Bookshop — I'm always sad when a beloved bookstore closes. Thank you so much for all your great blogs I find the informative and fun — keep on blogging!

  2. A framed print of that cover picture would make a great gift for my dad. It's so sad to hear of all the book stores that can't compete today.

  3. Chad–I was talking with a friend who once saw some of the pictures in this book as framed prints at an auction. I'll let you know if I find out if they're available anywhere. I'd like one, too!

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