Prairie Avenue Bookshop Lives On as Art

As the economy, the internet, and jump up and down on the smoldering remains the book selling industry, one of Chicago’s most important literary purveyors has been resurrected, though in zombie form.

The Prairie Avenue Bookstore (formerly at 418 South Wabash Avenue) was one of America’s last architecture book stores when it closed in 2009.  (It is estimated there are maybe two or three left in the country now.)  For five decades it served everyone from professional starchitects down to the lowly tourist in search of knowledge.  It was mecca for anyone interested in the built environment, and attracted people from hundreds of miles around.

If you’ve ever wondered what happened to its remaining stock — it’s resurfaced as an art project in the Grand Crossing neighborhood.

New York blog A Daily Dose of Architecture has the skinny on Chicago artist Theaster Gates, who has taken 14,000 books from Prairie Avenue Bookstore and turned them into a library. Think of it as Newberry-in-the-Ghetto.

Since it’s not run by the city, technically it’s a private library; but the public is more than welcome to use it (6918 South Dorchester Avenue).   It also includes 10,000 records from the now defunct Dr. Wax record store in Hyde Park which closed in 2010, and thousands of vintage slides (link for the youngsters) from the University of Chicago.

Gates’ project is part of a sporadic art movement called “radical hospitality.”  This is where people improve their neighborhoods, and call it art because in this age doing it for the good of the community or civic pride is too corny or square.

What Gates has done, however, could have an impact far beyond his neighborhood.  He’s created a fantastic resource for the entire city, and an entire industry.  All those books people drooled over, but couldn’t afford, at Prairie Avenue are now available for perusal for free!

I know that people inside SOM, AS+GG, SCB, Perkins+Will, and other Chicago architecture firms read this blog regularly.  It would be great is for one or more of the city’s big partnerships to put together some cash to keep this resource alive for the future.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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