12:26 PM EDT, June 14, 2013
Bob Katzman of Bob Katzman's Magazine Museum in Skokie first called last summer.
He really wanted a story, he explained, because, well, he had such a great story to tell: He had 140,000 magazines and newspapers, flags from around the world, buttons that read "Kiss Me I'm Norwegian" and "Kiss Me I'm Trinidadian." And, frankly, he didn't know how much longer he could hold out. Things were grim: His wife has multiple sclerosis, he has endless health problems — never mind that the market for back issues of old magazines, always precarious, was soft. I told him I knew of him but was busy at the moment.
Plus, he does this. He has a history of guilt-tripping reporters. Later, his wife, Joyce, said: "Bob's mother taught him how to elicit sympathy. He dwells on it. Probably because he's smart and bored out of his mind."
Then, a month ago, as I was mourning the death of the print edition of Time Out Chicago, which folded just as I was getting over the death of Newsweek, the death of Spin, Gourmet, etc., I thought of Bob Katzman.
I called him and said it felt like the magazine apocalypse was edging closer. He sighed and said, "There are four magazines left in America." Then he said that, as much as he would like to meet up, he had a surgery planned, his 35th surgery since he was 18. (He is 63.) It was rotator cuff surgery. He needed to close the store briefly; bad as business was, he hated the thought of not being there if someone needed an old magazine.
We agreed to talk in June.
Last week, I found him behind the counter of the Magazine Museum, which he has run off and on since 1985. Though he reminds you frequently he has periodicals dating to the 1500s, it's not a museum. In fact, it felt like the living embodiment of the magazine business itself, stuffed with tidbits, still standing but tattered.
"Are you here to write a eulogy?" he asked.
No, I said, but …
"Don't write a eulogy," he said, "because I'm alive, I still have this store, I still sell magazines, and if some son of a (expletive) from Chicago wants to drive here and get their father a once-in-a-lifetime gift for Father's Day, a magazine from the day their father was born or the day he got out of reform school or the day he lost his virginity, damn it, I got their magazine! Don't think, 'Oh, poor Bob, surrounded by 80 zillion magazines, all alone all day.' People don't want to go to a place that's sad! Trust me, nobody wants to read that story."
Then he added, because if nothing else Katzman is a realist: "But all of this is going to end, of course. Nobody wants to do this, no kid dreams of spending every day with old magazines, waiting for someone to buy one. My concern now is the impossibility of continuing. I have to be in good health to do this, yet this place is my pain and my remedy. That's new, for you. Usually I just tell people it's a 'paper prison' I've built."
He rooted around behind his counter and came up with a Chicago magazine issue from 1965, flipped to a story about Chicago teenagers who were committed to their jobs and pointed to a picture of himself. He was 15 in the photo; his hair was much darker, but he already looked like his older self, with a smirk and a glare.
What the picture couldn't say was that, three years later, at 18, he would be diagnosed with salivary gland cancer. It couldn't hint at how Katzman would lose part of his jaw, how doctors would use part of his hip to replace it. Then, when that didn't work, they would use a rib. It couldn't hint at how a severed nerve would paralyze half of his face. Or how later he would have brain surgeries and tumors and many resulting scars.
"In medical terms, I'm a (expletive) disaster," he said.
On the other hand, the picture of that cocky, confident 15-year-old suggests something more: At 15, he started a newsstand in Hyde Park to put himself through University of Chicago's Laboratory Schools. Eventually he ran five Bob's Newsstands throughout Chicago, with 55 employees; started a deli, bookstores, a magazine distribution business; wrote a five-part, self-published memoir ("I write about violence, crime, love, grit, corruption, determination, friendship, carpentry …"); he tired, selling or closing every business he had started; then, in 1985, thought about selling old periodicals. His first old-magazine business burned down a month after opening. Five years later, he reopened in Morton Grove, then closed and reopened in Skokie in 2009.
You're devoted to the tangible, I said.
He stood silent for a moment, and I started to speak, and he said, no, no, let me think. Then he said, slowly: "I like the sound of typing, I like the way a newspaper feels in my hands, I like to sit under a tree with a magazine. And I don't want some (expletive) computer where you push a button and then an electrical storm from the sun means you can't read a story anymore. So I guess I'm a dinosaur. But I'm a worthy dinosaur."
"Do you feel this is your last stand?" I asked.
"'Feel'?" he replied.
Bob Katzman's Magazine Museum is 100 feet long and 18 feet wide, musty and endearing. Every surface seems covered with magazines in plastic bags, every aisle lined with posters propped against stacks of magazines in such a fashion that the only way to walk is by placing one foot ahead of the other, as if on a tightrope.
A wall behind the front counter is devoted to decades of Rolling Stone, the opposite wall covered in Life magazines and newspapers, each issue accompanied by a history lesson about its contents, scrawled by Katzman on cardboard. I flipped through stacks of Esquires (stopping on a 1974 headline: "Do Americans Suddenly Hate Kids?"), old New Yorkers stuffed with glossy advertising for men's tuxedos and sugar, a 1978 Scientific American that promised to explain that futuristic pastime called computer poker. There were Vogues from the '50s, long-lost issues of Spy, a Good Housekeeping featuring Sinclair Lewis. Some issues were brand new, some had frayed edges and yellowed pages, others a light coating of gray dust.
Sleigh bells on the door jangled.
A young woman walked in and worked her way to the back of the store. Katzman followed.
"Hello," he said. "So, we're a back-issues magazine store. For birthday presents, anniversary presents. Everything in this room is $5. Over there, it's more. Posters are self service, magazines are not. I'm Bob."
"Hi, Bob," she said.
We worked our way back to the front. Katzman kept up a commentary on everything we passed:
"These Scientific Americans date to the 1800s. Here are the car magazines. We're the last place where you can find this many car magazines. Everything here is 'the last.' Here are the counterculture magazines, here's the Nelson Algren section, the Springsteen department. Around here, the Hemingway department, the F. Scott Fitzgerald department. Everything is organized by season and the size of the magazine.
"It's a very refined system and not organized for the customer. Keep your (expletive) hands off my magazines! They get mixed up, and then I'm lost. Here is the African-American and Civil Rights section. People ask why I bother with that in Skokie, but it's important. Here's the 'Star Wars' section. Here's Michael Jackson, D-Day, architecture. It's disheartening to preside over so much that's so remarkable, and nobody comes in here. Here's the Indian section, Afghanistan, the Kurds. Where else will you find Kurdish culture articles from decades ago?
"Scandinavia, weight lifting, Bill Gates, Cheryl Tiegs, Margaret Thatcher. The John Belushi section. UFOs over here, cavemen … Back there, the largest Vietnam-related periodical section in the country. I called National Public Radio and The New York Times to get them interested, but they weren't."
A few minutes later the door bells jingled again, and the woman left without buying anything.
I asked him when was the last time he made a sale.
He didn't really answer. He said he does a fair amount of Internet business and phone orders. He said the day before a man in Oklahoma called and bought a Playboy.
"The man is named Carl," he said. "Carl has an anxiety thing where he calls you 10 times in a row. Carl is a trial. Carl told me that no one will do business with him. I told him that I would.
"A woman called this morning looking for two magazines. A man drove here from Virginia and bought 100 issues of Penthouse to complete a collection. A TV producer from New Zealand needed a certain Time magazine from 1966. I had three of them. People with that new Superman movie, when they were here (in 2011), came in and bought magazines about furniture and UFOs. A man wanted everything on Serbia and bought 36 flags, three National Geographics and 72 'Kiss Me I'm Serbian' pins."
But actual store traffic?
"Muted," he said.
He said he called the Illinois Office of Tourism to get his store/museum on the list of official tourism destinations. "They didn't get it."
His four children, who range from 16 to their late 30s, are "not interested in continuing. They see me as imprisoned by magazines. Though, in general, it makes me feel bad more people don't appreciate what has taken me a lifetime to gather and understand. This is an emotional thing. Now I feel an overwhelming loss. Five hundred years of print, and it's all ending right here."
I said I think people incorrectly assume every back issue of every magazine ever published is online. He shook his head and asked me: Even if that were true, didn't I feel a personal connection to the printed page?
We were standing in the Playboy section. He seemed very sad. To lighten things, I told him that a friend of mine from college once posed for Playboy, a while ago. Is that what he meant by a personal connection?
"When?" he asked.
I told him, and immediately he located the right year of the issue, lifted a stack of magazines off the shelf and, within 30 seconds, he found the issue I had mentioned. "Ah," he said and turned and handed over the October 1992 issue of Playboy with two hands, as though it were on an expensive pillow.
I reached out for it.
"Wait," he said. "How does this make you feel?"
Awkward, I said. I never bought an issue of Playboy; now I felt like I had to.
"Forget that," he said. "I mean, react as a customer. How did this feel? My service?"
Personal, I said.
"Exactly!" he said. "I had no warning, I wasn't waiting for this request. Within seconds, it went from a memory you barely remembered to" — he opened the issue, stopping at my friend — "this girl. Wow."
"People say, 'I can buy this stuff for $1,'" Katzman said. "Well, that's a garage sale, this is not. They say, 'This is probably available online.' OK, but coming in here, being here, while this stands, that's not available anywhere else."
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