Brad Jonas grew up in the suburbs, but he was kind of an unofficial Hyde Parker.
“I visited Hyde Park since I was a baby,” Jonas says. “My grandparents grew up here, and my father grew up here...My parents escaped to the suburbs, but I came back.”
He came back as a graduate student in the '70s, focusing on political philosophy.
“I didn’t finish,” Jonas says. “That’s a common sort of event.”
Jonas has stayed for about 30 years. He says the neighborhood's "much better now" than when he'd visit his grandparents.
“When I came here in the '60s, there weren’t the restaurants. Right now, there are a lot of great restaurants,” he says. “I think it needs a little bit more retail...Actually, it needs a lot more retail.”
Maybe just not more used book stores. Jonas is half-owner of Powell Books in Hyde Park, which is just down the street from another used book store, O’Gara & Wilson.
“I mean, you can’t buy a pair of pants here. You can’t buy sheets. You can’t buy – there’s just a lot of sort of common sense things that we need to have in the Hyde Park area,” he said.
I ask Jonas if his local politicians – new Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Ald. Leslie Hairston, state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (who happens to live across the street) – have done enough to help attract stores.
There’s only so much those officials can do, he replies, and then points to another player, one that is key to all things Hyde Park.
“The University of Chicago has really tried in certain ways, but sometimes they think in decades where a lot of the merchants have to think in minutes. And so some of their long-term goals are really lofty, but sometimes they miss the forest for the trees. But they’re really trying. It’s not a blame question."
His business in recent years has expanded beyond Hyde Park, and just opened a new location in University Village, near the University of Illinois – Chicago. A few years ago, he and his co-owner won big after gambling on a young Barack Obama. They bought four or five thousand copies of the future president's first memoir, “very inexpensively,” Jonas says.
Mr. Obama used to be a customer, Jonas says, but hasn’t visited in years.
Being known as the president’s neighborhood has brought cache to the area, but maybe not enough to get past outsiders’ perceptions.
“When I’m on the phone and I tell someone that we’re by the Museum of Science and Industry, you can tell that they’re comfortable about the area. When I say, the University of Chicago, they’re nervous about the area."
"And I think they’re wrong about it, but…it’s how you market it, it’s how you look at it and how you bring things together.”
It’s the university, Jonas says, that’s made Hyde Park what it is.
“It’s a very exciting, diverse neighborhood. What makes it very interesting is there are all sorts of people, all sorts of ages – everything, every nationality, and it’s just a very exciting place to be.”