Last stand for the printed page

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Bob Katzman

Bob Katzman poses in his Skokie business, The Magazine Museum, which he calls his "paper prison." He has thousands of vintage magazines, and very few customers. (Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune / June 12, 2013)

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.

Katzman sighed.

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.

Revenue?

"Not enough."

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."

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