Friends Step Up to Keep Local Bookstore Open After Owner’s Death, Business Better Than Ever

Luis Mejia | The PhoenixHeirloom Books (6239 N. Clark St.) is open every day from 12 to 7 p.m.

In April 2017, then 29-year-old Chelsea Carr Rectanus fulfilled a lifelong dream and opened used bookshop Heirloom Books (6239 N. Clark St.) with two pallets of books and a truckload of determination. 

“You’ve got to make those decisions sometimes, just to try,” Carr Rectanus said in a short 2019 documentary produced by Twilight City Studios. “So that you can say later on in life, ‘I tried. It didn’t work out, but I gave it a go.’”

After more than three years of successfully running Heirloom Books, Rectanus passed “peacefully but unexpectedly” Aug. 7 due to complications from a longstanding illness, her father, Earl Rectanus, wrote on the store’s Facebook page

In Heirloom’s Facebook bio, Chicago bookstores are described as “heirlooms to our city.” Similarly, in Carr Rectanus’ family, hand-me-down books were heirlooms passed from one generation to the next, with notes scribbled in the margins and front page signatures claiming previous ownership.

“There’s just something very tactile and beautiful about flipping through pages and smelling the history of that,” she said to Twilight City Studios.

Walking into the store, handwritten genre labels identify a sea of mismatched bookshelves – filling as much space as possible while still leaving room to browse. From shelf to shelf patrons may find anything from used vinyl records to books on gender studies to a detailed Irish map collection.

Handwritten labels designate the biography section. Photo Credit: Luis Mejia | The Phoenix

“You’re not necessarily going there to buy a specific product,” Heirloom Books volunteer Joe Lanter told The Phoenix. “It’s a journey through our shelves … that’s the great thing about a used bookstore in general is that it’s kind of random.”

As Heirloom forged its place in the community, two pallets of books grew into a collection of thousands and the shop became a gathering place for artists, students, poets, the LGBTQ community and other Edgewater and Rogers Park residents.

“It really is as great as the romance would lead you to believe,” Carr Rectanus said to the Chicago Reader in February 2018. “There’s obviously a lot of hard work … but it’s good as it’s cracked up to be.”

Following her death, friends of Carr Rectanus stepped up to keep Heirloom afloat, volunteering around the shop and organizing a GoFundMe page, which has since raised nearly $18,000. Erik Graff and Erik Badger, two of Carr Rectanus’ close friends, now volunteer to co-manage the store and are in the process of getting Heirloom registered as a not-for-profit. They hope to donate Heirloom’s future profits to other local nonprofit organizations such as Helix Café and Centro Romero.

Graff, a former Loyola assistant academic dean, worked at Heirloom with Carr Rectanus during the years prior to her death and remembered he initially called her determination to open the store “a noble but quixotic adventure.”

“I found out later that she was really offended [by my comment],” Graff said in an interview with The Phoenix. “Very quickly I was here five days a week, 40 hours a week, helping with the store.”

With the help of volunteer work, Heirloom Books has kept its shelves stocked. Photo Credit: Luis Mejia | The Phoenix

Graff noted community support after Carr Rectanus’ death has been overwhelming and business has become better than ever before, even in the wake of small business closures during the pandemic.

“She was the heart of the place,” Graff said. “She was a very sweet person. So because of that, her death got a lot of response as the word spread.”

Even with business expanding for the moment, Graff expressed uncertainty about it lasting and encouraged members of the community to continue to support Heirloom and other local independent bookstores. 

The shop recently became an affiliate with Bookshop, an online retailer for local independent bookstores to sell their books virtually. Bookstores throughout the U.S. and the United Kingdom have been joining the platform by storm to keep up with a competitive selling market, as well as alleviate the stress of temporary store closures due to coronavirus restrictions.

With new and used books sold at less than half price, Graff pointed out, Heirloom never made much money. But for Carr Rectanus, owning a bookstore was the first time she felt excited to go into work every day.

“I definitely wake up every morning looking forward to work … that’s a huge life change for me,” she said in the Twilight City documentary. “I didn’t think for a long time … I would ever have a job that I looked forward to.”

Heirloom Books is open every day from 12 to 7 p.m.

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