More than 40 years in business has reaffirmed what Phil Bujnowski has always been told as fact; the Bible is the world’s best-selling book.
Bujnowski, a 69-year-old Catholic who attends St. Gertrude’s Parish in Rogers Park, owns and operates the Mustard Seed Christian Bookstore at West Sheridan Road and North Broadway Avenue as a tenant of the Woodruff Arcade Building — a nearly century-old building soon to be replaced by a mixed-use development.
What started in 1975 with Bujnowski selling Bibles out of the trunk of his car around Chicago gradually evolved into his Edgewater storefront, which opened in 1978. Since then, the store has moved from its original, smaller location next door — where Style Zone Hair Salon currently sits — to its current, larger space to account for a growing inventory.
The narrow aisles of the Mustard Seed are cramped with Christian media and religious knick-knacks. The days of Bujnowski exclusively selling Bibles are long gone; walls and shelves are strewn with crucifixes, mugs and figurines. The shop sells dozens of versions of the Bible and numerous genres of Christian books: children’s picture books, history books, prayer booklets and self-help books are among the many options.
After serving as a fixture of the Rogers Park community for several decades, Bujnowski will have to close his store in November.
The PHOENIX previously reported on the selling of the Woodruff Arcade Building in February. Businesses leasing space in the building were originally told they had until Dec. 30 to vacate, but Bujnowski said that deadline has since been moved up a month to Nov. 30 because the developer is giving them two months of free rent.
A spokeswoman for 48th Ward Alderman Harry Osterman, in whose district the arcade building stands, declined to comment on the new deadline.
As a result, Bujnowksi said the Mustard Seed will most likely close before Thanksgiving. He said he received an offer to move the store to a vacant spot on North Clark Street, where Minas TV once ran video rentals, but he ultimately refused when his wife, Nancy, wouldn’t give him her blessing.
“It’s been a good run,” Bujnowski said.
With the rise of internet book retailers such as Amazon in the past two decades, Bujnowksi experienced the same dip in sales as most bookstores nationwide, but he learned to adapt. Bujnowski said he’s had to shift his focus to selling used books. Resale items take up the majority of his inventory and he’s constantly getting items through donations, he said.
“Sales have declined drastically, but my margins have increased,” Bujnowski said.
Selling donated items means Bujnowski gets all the profit, which he said has helped his business stay afloat during a turbulent decade for bookstore owners.
However, recently Bujnowksi has begun to get rid of his inventory. The various overflowing stacks of books which litter the store are only a preview for what Bujnowksi’s full inventory consists of.
In the back storage room, Bujnowski said he has around 10,000 items, which are listed for sale on half.com; 9,500 of those items are books. Now, he said, two to three books from his collection are sold and shipped out every day.
He took a second job as a sacristan — the person responsible for taking care of a church’s sacred objects and vestments — several years ago to help where book sales fell short, a role he said he’ll continue when he closes his doors for good. But Bujnowski appeared to get choked up a little and said he’ll miss the day-to-day interactions with customers most.
“I really did approach it as a ministry, as a calling,” Bujnowski said. “I do it because it’s important and I serve people.”
The store has numerous regular customers. Ronald Schupp — a bespectacled man with feathers and pins adorning his cowboy hat — seemed saddened as Bujnowski mentioned the news of the store’s closing.
“This is the best store of its kind that I’ve ever been in,” said Schupp, 65. “I’ve been a loyal customer since the [1980s].”
It seemed every time someone entered through the door, Bujnowski perked up and greeted them by name before the two began to speak like old friends.
“We’ve had our fair share of characters, but the richness of people you get — the customer base has been so great,” Bujnowski said.
A woman named Mary dropped off some books for donation. Bujnowski held a brief conversation with her and informed her of the closing. Another older man, named Vernon, suggested Bujnowski take a country music CD as a donation because it featured songs about God. Bujnowksi chuckled and said he’d known him since the man was 25-years-old.
He easily engaged those he didn’t know in conversation and offered his assistance in the best way he could.
One Loyola student stopped by in search of a required text for class. Bujnowski immediately led him to the back of the store, squatted down and began rifling through different Bibles to help the student find what he needed.
In the past, Bujnowski did business with dozens of parishes across Chicago, but he also found a significant clientele at Loyola. He said professors in the university’s Institute for Pastoral Studies (IPS) would often recommend their students pick up course texts there.
Paul Giblin, a professor emeritus from IPS, said when the department was located on the Lake Shore Campus, he always ordered his course books through the Mustard Seed.
“Phil and Nancy ran so much more than a bookstore. They were warm and gentle and on a first name basis with street people,” Giblin wrote in an email to The PHOENIX. “Their closing is a big loss to the neighborhood.”
Joy Bleiker, a senior theological studies student at Loyola, said walking into the Mustard Seed her first year helped her discover what she wanted to do during her college years.
“It definitely was a big part of my formation,” the 21-year-old said. “It’s such a beautiful little shop in a big city.”