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In Store: a small shop's heavy canon 

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You can tell a book came from the Armadillo's Pillow just by smelling the pages. I bought a copy of Aristotle's Ethics there over a year ago. The pages are still redolent of lavender incense.

"We don't even burn incense anymore," says Matt Ebert, co-owner of the niche-sized shop in Rogers Park. "It's just stuck here."

The Armadillo's Pillow smells better than most used-book stores, which generally reek of musty pulp. But book buyers are looking for intellectual thrills, not olfactory ones--and on those terms, the Armadillo's Pillow is definitely worth a visit. Square foot for square foot, it holds its own against other used-book stores in town.

"When you're this small," Ebert says, "you've got to be picky."

Betsey Boemmel, Ebert's wife and business partner, opened the bookstore six years ago in a converted chicken shack on Sheridan. A bibliophile from way back, Boemmel grew up in a home that was practically insulated with books. Her mother owned over 6,000 volumes, which were squeezed onto shelves and stacked in corners.

"My mom would haul me everywhere looking for interesting books," says Boemmel. "Used-book stores, rummage sales." Sadly, the collection was destroyed in a fire.

When Boemmel was getting ready to open the Armadillo's Pillow, she imagined she'd been inspired to enter the business by a funky used-book store she'd frequented as a teenager in Arlington Heights. But as the shelves filled with books, she realized the store was starting to look like her childhood home. Her upbringing, she figures, must have imprinted her with a desire to be among books: "To read 'em, hold 'em, buy 'em, sell 'em..."

"Look at 'em, smell 'em," adds Ebert, who's also a serious fool for lit. Ebert thinks of the book lover's life as a quest for "the numinous," the mystical experience that may lie beneath the very next cover. A used-book store is the best place for the pursuit, he believes, because the haphazard nature of the books' arrangement leads the seeker toward a discovery he may not find at an orderly Barnes & Noble. (At the space-challenged Armadillo's Pillow, the books are even piled on the floor.)

"You can find what you're looking for at a used-book store a little cheaper, if you don't mind a book with a little character," Ebert says. "But also, you might find something you didn't know you needed."

Amazon.com has its top 100, the New York Times has its best-seller list, but a lot of people think a used-book store is the best place to find out which writers really have legs. At the Armadillo's Pillow, Frank Herbert's Dune is the all-time number one seller, but other big names are J.D. Salinger, Charles Bukowski, and Jack Kerouac, writers whose self-destructive personalities seem to have an appeal to the young people whose economic circumstances lead them here.

The seasons also dictate what sells, says Boemmel. Jane Austen does well in the winter. In the summer, when people have time for a big, fat book, they often pick a ponderous Russian novel. "Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky," she says. "In Chicago, people like to bring War and Peace to the beach."

Boemmel is responsible for the store's decor--old oriental rugs on the floor, globes atop the bookshelves, wooden cats and frogs intended to drive away evil spirits dangling from the ceiling--as well as its enigmatic name. She was inspired by John Irving's novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, in which two characters exchange an armadillo as a gift. That struck her as a metaphor for her business, in which books pass from one owner to another. "It's sort of a symbol of reciprocity," she says. "It's perfect for what we do."

Soon after the store opened, some friends of Boemmel's bought her a stuffed armadillo from a taxidermist in El Paso. It sits in a tiny rocking chair in the window, looking out at the street. Boemmel has spent so much time studying the armored creature that she wants to write a children's story about what's inside that shell. She thinks it's the same thing that's inside the store.

"I think in there he's really, really skinny, and he's got a lot of books in there," she says. "You think that he's really bulky, but he's really lean and mean and green."

The Armadillo's Pillow, 6753 N. Sheridan Road, is open from noon to 6 PM every day except Wednesday. Call 773-761-2558.

--Ted Kleine

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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