Chicago’s Only Theater Bookstore and Cafe Will Soon Take the Stage

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Chicago theater kids will be getting a hangout of their own later this summer when a new drama-themed bookstore and cafe opens in Andersonville. The Understudy will stock plays, host performances, and have plenty of space for actors, playwrights, and crew members to hang out and drink coffee and talk theater.

“During COVID, this is what we were actually missing about the theater: a sense of community,” says Adam Todd Crawford, who co-owns the Understudy with his business and life partner, Danny Fender (the two plan to marry in October). “It’s something the theater company didn’t have, a gathering place.”

A cafe was not part of their original vision. “We’re not natural coffee people,” says Crawford. But the more they thought about it, the more a cafe fit in with their idea of a community space, and they turned to mentors like Annie Cathcart and Carrie Flynn, the owners of Charmers Cafe in Rogers Park, and Jay Kim and Daniel Aquino of the Coffee Lab in Evanston for advice.

“There are so many different parallels between coffee and theater,” says Fender. “The idea of gathering, a ritual, a meeting over a cup of coffee.” They also liked the idea of highlighting local vendors: Metric Coffee will be providing the beans, while tea will come from the Coffee & Tea Exchange in Lakeview, and pastry will be provided by Phlour bakery in Edgewater. They’ve also been in conversation with their new neighbor, Defloured, about gluten-free baked goods and are open to expanding the menu, depending on what their customers want.

Two men stand before a stage light.
Danny Fender and Adam Todd Crawford, the two owners of the Understudy.
Joe Mazza/Brave Lux Chicago

The idea of a drama bookstore first occurred to Crawford and Fender a few years ago when they were theater students at DePaul — Fender is a stage manager and Crawford is an actor — and realized there were very few places in Chicago where they could find new scripts and audition materials. There are, of course, websites with those sorts of resources, and Amazon, but neither compared to the experience of actually picking up a book.

“I’m a tactile person,” says Crawford. “Most theater people are. Theater can only happen in person.” They also believe plays are an underappreciated form of literature and more people should be reading them.

Their inspiration was the Drama Book Shop in New York, though as they did more research, they learned that Chicago had once been home to two theater bookstores, Scenes and Act One (later Soliloquy), which closed in 1996 and the early 2000s respectively. They chose Andersonville because they liked the neighborhood’s small business community and because it was near several small theaters.

Crawford’s family helped with the initial funding, and with navigating all the paperwork around starting a new business and securing a lease, though the two founders say they’re also applying for grants and small business loans. “This is a family endeavor,” says Crawford. “It’s not at all self-made. It’s a community-made business through and through.”

The space itself, previously a storefront branch of Chase bank, is 2,500 square feet, which will be evenly divided between the bookshelves and the 45-seat cafe. Architect Keefer Dunn did the buildout and Siren Betty Design (the design firm that’s worked with Claudia, Giant, and others) will do the interiors, which will resemble a library — or perhaps a theater lobby — with comfortable chairs and couches and walls full of books with rolling ladders. There will also be nods to actual theaters: both old-fashioned glamour in the form of velvet curtains and the Chicago tradition of DIY black boxes. (It will probably not have the black box smell of fresh paint and sawdust, but if they can find an air freshener with that particular scent, says Fender, they’re open to the idea.) All the freestanding bookshelves and display tables will be on wheels so that the space can be rearranged for performances if necessary.

The Understudy’s event calendar is very much a work in progress, says Fender, but the two owners hope to fill it with readings of new plays, 10-minute performances of works in progress, workshops for actors who would like to practice speaking Shakespeare, and book clubs to discuss classic and contemporary plays. There are also plans to work with the Chicago Children’s Theatre and nearby schools to help educate the next generation of theater kids.

Why Understudy, though, and not star? “It’s about people aren’t in [theater] for fame, who aren’t in it for massive amounts of money,” says Crawford. “It’s about people who love what they do and who they work with and the art that they make. It’s about our love and passion for people who work hard to make theater. It’s that love that keeps me going.”

The Understudy, 5531 N. Clark Street, scheduled to open summer 2022.

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