By Hannah Lutz
For this week’s post, I stopped by Rogers Park’s used book shop, The Armadillo’s Pillow, owned by Betsy Boemmel and Matt Ebert. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Betsy to learn about this creative gem of Rogers Park.
How did The Armadillo’s Pillow first start?
We opened in 1994. We’re book lovers. We found the store space, and then moved into Rogers Park. We took one look at the space, and were like, “Oh yeah, we’ll take it. Perfect.”
How does your Rogers Park location play a role in your sales?
The Rogers Park economy does seem to be sort of outside of the rest of the world. It just doesn’t run exactly the same as other places, so I think location has had a big effect on how well the business has done. The neighborhood has changed fairly dramatically in all these years, but the it more changes, the more it stays the same in Rogers Park. It’s still a really diverse neighborhood. People are not out to spend a ton of money, so they’re not looking for super high end things in the neighborhood. It’s strange- there’ve been dramatic changes, but in a way, it is always the same.
What were your goals or business plans when first opening?
We didn’t have a business plan. I was 25. We absolutely knew nothing. This was our business plan- we read books, not about business at all. We are just big readers. There was a used book store in my neighborhood growing up, so it was always something I knew about. We were looking to start a business that wasn’t going to be something huge. We didn’t have a ton of money to put into it, but we had some enthusiasm so we used that.
Who are your customers, typically?
As range-y as Rogers Park is, that’s who my customer is. It’s just everyone, from little kids, to college students and Loyola staff and supporters. There isn’t one person that I’m like, “Yeah, that’s my customer.” Every day it’s different people.
Why do you think your shop and other small, independent stores, unlike chains such as Borders, have been able to stay afloat during this digital age?
I think sometimes businesses get too big. Bloated middle management is gonna kill a business. I’m not really sure if that’s Borders’ problem, but no one is really taking care of Borders. No one is saying, “I have to keep Borders open because it’s my life blood.” People don’t feel like that about a corporation that big. They’re not attached to it the same way. A small business is personal. We’re stubborn- that’s why we’re here. People will tell us every day, “No one wants to read. Kids don’t read anymore. People don’t read anymore.” And none of that’s true. People like books. They come in. They buy them. It happens. And we’re stubborn. We don’t just want to have a store that sells some stuff. We want to deal with books. So all that other stuff is sort of like, yeah, we could clear out all the books and sell e-readers, but then where would the book store be?
What were your aspirations when first opening?
I had no idea I would be doing it this many years. In the beginning, my hope really was just to build it. I have sort of a soft place in my heart for a folly. I love that, like some weird thing just because. It was really about that to begin with. I didn’t know it would keep going. We had no idea it would work. We knew nothing- we had to learn every little bit of it. I still love it as much as when we started.
Why did you decide to call it “The Armadillo’s Pillow?”
We named it after a John Irving novel called A Prayer for Owen Meany. It was just the book that we were reading at the time. It was a wildfire kind of book for my friends and acquaintances, and we were looking for some literary connection [when naming the store]. I have sort of a vague story in my head about it. We started with an armadillo because in the book there’s a stuffed armadillo that the kids pass back and forth. So many things happened, and this is the smallest token to try to make that better. I like the hard and soft of the armadillo- that it’s the hardest thing, but what would an armadillo use for a pillow? A book. I like the soft inside to the impenetrable shell, the way that books are like that. The outside of them is kind of impenetrable, but you get in there and there’s all the guts and stuff. The bottom of an armadillo is really furry. It’s a squishy thing in a shell. So all of that- that’s why we named it that way.
The Armadillo’s Pillow is located at 6753 N. Sheridan Road. They host open mics every Tuesday, featuring local musicians, stand-up comics and poets. This independent book store has a unique charm that sets it apart, adding to the creativity and diversity of the Rogers Park neighborhood.
This interview has been condensed and edited.