Sunday, January 30, 2011

His Back Pages: With Skokie's 'Magazine Museum,' Bob Katzman Continues to Subscribe to the Power of Print (and Perseverance)

It doesn't require a whole lot of deep reflection to realize the extent to which the printed page is evaporating from view. With online outlets and other electronic replications replacing printed newspapers, magazines and books, environmentalists may have just cause for rejoicing, but many of us will never get used to curling up with a good Kindle or searching through the Sports Illustrated website to see who made the cover this week.

Not surprisingly for a man who opened his first Chicago newsstand--built with his own hands--at age 15 and now runs Bob Katzman's Magazine Museum in Skokie (a successor to his longtime Morton Grove store, Magazine Memories), Robert M. Katzman feels a strong kinship with words and photographs on paper.
"Would you want a virtual kiss?" he asks, in philosophizing on the importance of his back-issue emporium, which he says is one of the last four such stores in America. "Whether my customers are looking for unique gifts to commemorate a birthday or anniversary, to surprise a valued client with something they'll never discard or to adorn theater and film sets with historically-accurate props, what is it worth that I have the actual item forever bound to a specific point in time?"

Although the question is rhetorical, it's clear that to Bob Katzman, the answer is obviously, "Everything."

Still, the earnest Katzman--a survivor in almost every sense, of cancer, of 32 surgeries throughout his 60 years, of a recession that shuttered his larger Morton Grove shop and devastated his personal finances--knows he, and his retail establishment, is something of an anachronism. 

"It's a prison, a paper prison," he wryly concedes about his eponymous Magazine Museum, which houses and sells 140,000 periodicals--including voluminous collections of Time, New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, Playboy, Esquire, National Geographic, dormant publications like Life, Look and The Saturday Evening Post and what he boasts is the country's largest repository of magazines featuring African-American imprints or topics.

One can get a sense of the depth of Katzman's inventory through this page on, and marvel at the fact that he doesn't track it on a computer. Whatever portion of his stock isn't ingrained in his memory--still remarkable, despite two brain surgeries to remove tumors in 2004, which he says dulled his recollection of names and faces--is catalogued in an analog manner. For instance, thousands of National Geographic issues, dating back 80+ years, are organized by subject matter and referenced in a small Rolodex.

Certainly, as a place to peruse the back pages of history--but not sit and read, as Katzman admonishes that with much of his inventory in delicate condition and of estimable value, his store is not a library--the Magazine Museum, at 4906 W. Oakton St. in Skokie, IL, is well worth a visit...and likely a gratifying purchase or two. Besides the plethora of magazines lining the store on racks custom-constructed by Katzman, there are historic displays of publications dating back to 1681, and numerous other items of sentimental and decorative value, including classic advertisements, record albums, MAD paperbacks, miniature flags from every nation on Earth and over 30,000 posters.

With much less square footage than he had on Dempster St. in Morton Grove from 1989 to 2009, Katzman is intent on divesting much of his poster inventory and selling each for just $5-$10. On a recent visit, I bought my sister Allison an official, original edition Billy Elliot movie poster that Bob had dropped from $195 to just $10.

While the lifelong Chicago area resident didn't see many other career options aside from opening another store--"What else was I going to do with 3,000 boxes of magazines?"--Katzman admits that business still isn't quite booming in the new location he's occupied since March 2010.

"I come to work every day, but I'm basically unemployed," he notes, although one can sense how acutely Katzman relishes interacting with each person who comes through his door, not just as a potential purchaser, but as new ears to regale about his offerings and passions, which have long dovetailed.

Beyond his admiration for what others have written and published, Bob Katzman is an inveterate storyteller. And worried that his memory might dissipate precipitously following his brain surgeries, in 2004 he started producing his own books--primarily non-fictional Chicago-centric accounts of his life, businesses and proclivity for overcoming adversity.

"I write about standing up for yourself and not taking any shit from anybody," he told me about his five self-published books and four more in the can that await adequate resources to be printed. Many of Katzman's stories can be read for free online at and details of his books can be found on his publishing company website.

Seeing his store in large part as a venue to sell his books, which he had pulled from the shelves of Barnes & Noble and Borders because he didn't feel they were getting proper exposure, Katzman says he would love to work with an agent to broaden both his writing and storytelling outlets. To date, he has sold over 5,000 copies of his books and has been hired for more than 70 public speaking engagements.

"I'm an ordinary person with an extraordinary life," he states, and while I'd be the first to suggest that this may sound like puffery without knowing the biography behind it--including losing his jaw to cancer at 18, having his face partially paralyzed in a subsequent surgery, awaiting his 33rd operation and bringing up four children, including 14-year-old Sarah, who another couple gave to Bob and wife Joyce, as a baby, to raise in their stead--perhaps you can see why I felt he was richly deserving of a feature article.

In a just world, Bob Katzman would be the subject of a cover story in a mainstream magazine--publishers, some of whom seek copies of their own back issues from his store, owe him at least that much--but though he's been profiled on CBS 2 Chicago, in the Chicago Tribune and elsewhere, for now, a Seth Saith blog post will seemingly have to suffice.

And lest you think he's just a guy oddly obsessed with old magazines and telling "rags"-to-riches-to-rags tales about cruel winters and brutal economies, Katzman--who has been with Joyce for 36 years following a previous marriage--proclaims his greatest source of pride to be "raising good children, with good values, who are politically aware, environmentally sensitive and themselves good, loving parents."

Ernest Hemingway, of whom Bob Katzman's Magazine Museum has an extensive collection of magazines with stories by or about, once said, "In order to write about life, first you must live it."

Sitting behind a counter alongside the books he's written, in a storefront containing more magazines than almost anyone else has to offer--let alone can store in their own mind--the world-weary yet endearingly enduring proprietor quite appropriately concludes our conversation by proudly declaring, "I'm an original. I'm not a copy of anybody else."

Bob Katzman's Magazine Museum, 4906 W. Oakton, Skokie, IL 60077
Store Hours: Mon-Fri: 9:00am-6:00pm / Weekends: 9:00am-3:00pm
Phone: (847) 677-9444 -

(This story was not sponsored nor requested. I have no affiliation with Robert Katzman or his commercial enterprises.)


Robert M. Katzman said...

Jesus Christ, Seth!

This is a fair, balanced and honest portrayal, which is a lot rarer than people may realize.

In other interviews I've had in my bizarre life, the writers simply arrived at conclusions unrelated to what he or she saw or heard.

Thanks for the attention, the honesty and taking the time to listen. Final note: Yesterday, a tall Polish Catholic man came in and after an initially unnerving moment in which he decided to carefully define the difference between "Poles" and Jews who came from Poland--not the same thing at all to him--we then got into a discussion of ideas, travel, real books vs Kindles, religion, storytelling, European identity, American vs European women (inevitable)and why the past was better or worse depending on one's race and medical advances and how food used to taste better. Not bad for just an hour with a total stranger.

I liked him. He's 35 and when he left, I offered him my first book as a gesture of new friendship and asked him if he'd want to read it.

Surprised by the offer, he said yes. So,now I'll just wait and see what happensd next.

Thanks again for all your time and the (virtual)ink, Seth. I hope people want to read it.

Bob Katzman

mudhoer said...

Cowabunga! I can't believe a treasure like Bob's News stand is right here in beautiful down town Skokie, and you don't have to stand in a line down the street and around the corner to get in! I for one want a shot at finding my own personall goodies in the place before they are all gone....... B. Matteson

Suzi said...

This is a terrific story. One of your best. I am going to make it a point to stop into this store, and I am going to send this story to my friends who are still in publishing.

Anonymous said...

This store is truly a gem. I am reminded of great stores like this in Greenwich Village back in the 1960's!
-M. Rosen

Anonymous said...

This place is awesome! I got some good old scifi magazines and posters here. It really is a museum, well worth the trip if you're in the Chicago area...