Tanner McSwain of Uncharted Books (@UnchartedBooks, 2630 N. Milwaukee Ave.) said banks wouldn’t go near his idea to launch an independent used bookstore in Logan Square. The 26 year-old wasn’t surprised that the banks reacted that way, but he was taken back by what showed up as a black mark on his credit report.
A couple of years ago he closed an infrequently used credit card account that charged him monthly fees. “It seemed to me I was being very financially responsible for closing an account that was charging me if I didn’t use it enough,” he says. “But apparently that reads as irresponsible. They told me it killed my credit score.”
McSwain says the experience soured him on banks even more than he already was. “It’s a rigged game and I don’t want to play that game at all,” he says. “I kind of wish I could just stick my money under mattresses.”
However, McSwain, who grew up on a chicken farm in the small city of Albemarle, N.C., and moved to Logan Square in 2008, was not deterred. The displaced massage therapist with a love of words launched a Tumblr blog for the bookstore armed only with a name and an idea.
Next, McSwain turned to Kickstarter—a crowdsourcing site for micro-philanthropy—to supplement his personal savings and inheritance he was ready to invest in his idea.
Kickstarter projects have 30 days to reach their fundraising goal. Creators make a page and solicit donations from friends and strangers, devising creative rewards for donors. If a campaign falls a dollar short, its creator gets nothing. If the goal is reached, the creator keeps 100% ownership in the idea and doesn’t have to pay back the investors. In 2012, Kickstarter expects to raise $150 million for projects, such as documentaries, nonprofit capital campaigns, and independent albums. For entrepreneurs such as McSwain, Kickstarter provides an end-around on a banking system increasingly uninterested in small business lending.
But it does more than raise money, as McSwain soon realized. “It formed a community around the idea before I even opened,” he says. “It started a buzz and a relationship with people. It’s probably the best idea I’ve had since I started the store.”
He reached his $10,000 goal (in total he raised $12,572) just six days after launching his campaign, on his birthday, powered by 271 invested backers, none of them a bank. He got a big boost when the author Neil Gaiman and the band Superchunk retweeted a link to his page. Where banks saw a nonstarter, the crowd saw opportunity, just as McSwain did when Borders bookstore chain started closing its doors.
“It made me wonder what it would do to the bookstore industry,” says McSwain, a lover of the book Treasure Island who was interning at McGraw Hill when Borders made the closure announcement. “I found that the little bookshops were doing okay in the recession, and I thought Logan Square needed one. Chicago has a history of taking care of places that are small, independent and run with integrity.”
A used, independent bookstore is a low-overhead business, especially in Logan Square, where rent is still somewhat affordable. “Yes, this store required all the money I have in the world and more, but if there was ever a time I could put everything on the line, now is it,” McSwain says.
But McSwain believes in Logan Square. He has lived in other neighborhoods, but Logan Square brought him back. He thinks an independent bookstore was one of the last things the burgeoning neighborhood scene lacked.
“Just by looking around here you can tell that this neighborhood definitely takes care of its indie businesses,” he says.
He lists a number of establishments that have paved the way for him: New Wave Coffee (@newwavecoffee, 3103 W. Logan Blvd./2557 N. Milwaukee Ave.), the much-lauded Lula Cafe (@lulacafe, 2537 N. Kedzie Blvd.) and Longman & Eagle (@longmanandeagle, 2657 N. Kedzie Ave.). As we spoke, the Logan Theatre (@thelogantheatre, 2646 N. Milwaukee Ave.) was in the final stages of a major rehabilitation project, and has since reopened.
“This is a neighborhood entering a renaissance,” he says. “Where this neighborhood is going in the next few years is going to be incredible, and I wanted to get in on the ground floor of that and establish this as a place that is going to be here for 20 years or more.”
On Jan. 12, 2012, McSwain opened Uncharted Books doors finally bringing a local, small business bookstore to the neighborhood.
Soon after, the blog and Kickstarter campaign caught the attention of Tumblr outreach specialist Rachel Fershleiser. Fershleiser had worked for a bookstore in New York for six years before joining the blogging site and dreamed of starting just the kind of place McSwain had in mind. She began to correspond with McSwain, and when she knew she would be in Chicago for the Association of Writers and Writers’ Programs conference in early March, she hit him up about doing a Tumblr promotion at the shop.
On March 2, more than 100 Tumblr writers turned out at the tiny, still-unfinished bookstore at 2630 N. Milwaukee Ave. for the Tumblr writers’ meetup. McSwain sat humbled behind his desk, watching people squeeze against his bookshelves to make their way through the crowd and ringing up sales of his last copies of The Chicagoan. He watched his dream of an independent used bookstore—launched in a sketchy economy and unwanted by banks—make a splash of a debut with the power of a web-based financing site, Twitter and Tumblr.
About Uncharted Books
Located at 2630 N. Milwaukee Ave., Uncharted Books opened its doors in January 2012 to see used books in the heart of Logan Square. Featuring a general selection, the shop specializes in contemporary, literary fiction, Chicago interest, women’s studies and queer/LGBT. The store buys books and accepts donations. Stop by to say hi to Tanner and Ramona, the bookstore’s resident dog.