Renaissance man Jim Gibson, 59, of Forest Park, has been places and done things. He can build a bookshelf, fix your window, do your taxes, or run your company. He knows some famous people, and has a sixth sense for a good collectible-book purchase. And now, book lovers will have access to his agile mind – and growing book inventory – with the opening of The Looking Glass, a used book store, 823 S. Oak Park Ave. (formerly the location of Armchair Books).
Reared in Oak Park from the age of 10, Gibson is now a Forest Park resident since 1993.
“Forest Park today reminds me of what Oak Park was when I was growing up – less expensive, for one thing. Oak Park then was a mix of the very wealthy, middle-class guys like my dad and my friends’ dads, and blue collar – all of them could afford to live there, but not anymore.”
Gibson started learning how to build and fix things when his veterinary supply salesman father bought a Victorian house in the 100 block of Wesley Avenue. Creating the shelves for Looking Glass was a simple matter– Gibson built them in the store in the space of three weeks.
Gibson spent two years as house manager for Northlight Repertory Theater, and fondly recalls those days and encounters with theater personalities including Eva Marie Saint, Jeffrey Hayden, John Mahoney, Milton Selzer, Laurie Metcalfe, Megan Mullally, and the late Dennis Farina.
It was during this time that he got interested in used books. He also ran a deli and one of his deli customers was Paul Rohe, of “Paul Rohe and Sons, Booksellers” in Evanston, and later in Lincoln Park. It was Rohe who got Gibson started in the used book business.
“Everybody in this business starts as a collector and has a mentor, the guy who showed him how to be a dealer,” says Gibson, whose mentor was Rohe. “You develop an eye; you want a book but you don’t know why. Then you look it up…” and the rarity or value confirms that budding instinct for quality.
Rohe died in 2005, and his son, Chris Rohe, another Oak Parker, sells antiquarian books on the Internet.
Gibson draws a line between books for reading versus collectible books: “There is no such thing as an antique book; they are fragile.” A collectible book, he says, can range in price from $15 to $450, and what makes it collectible is simply, “there is someone out there who wants it and is willing to pay.” Those desires are highly personal and individual.
Gibson opened Looking Glass with business partner Steve Kirschenbaum.
“Steve collects Stephen King; I detest Stephen King. Personally, I like books with beautiful bindings and illustrations – artists like Arthur Rackham and Howard Pyle. I appreciate a book that is also an object of art.”
Gibson reads, too, of course; he prefers mysteries, older sci-fi and some histories. He likes Tom Clancy, Laurie King and Sara Paretzky.
Gibson is now building his inventory by buying good quality books.
The location, near the Blue Line el stop, should be accessible to book lovers from Chicago and the suburbs. Gibson says Looking Glass is here to reverse the trend of book stores going out of business:
“We want this to be a place people come to spend some time. We welcome book clubs and other community groups who’d like to meet here.”
There is a cozy children’s section in the rear of the store, perfect for a child to read and daydream; amusing mugs pins and magnets for sale, along with many gift-worthy sets of cast-iron bookends depicting dinosaurs, bicycles and more. A table displays a variety of magic kits; a Maltese Falcon statuette roosts near the mystery shelves. Contra the usual dim and dusty look, this used-book shop is clean, brightly lit and welcoming.
The Looking Glass bookstore is now open Monday through Friday 12-6 p.m., Saturdays 11a.m. -6 p.m. and Sundays 12 -5 p.m., though hours are expected to lengthen in warmer weather. The grand opening is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 15, with prizes and surprises to delight book lovers.