Times change, but City News Cafe stays the course as the place with thousands of magazines

Things change.

And you might find no greater example of that than the Six Corners neighborhood on the Northwest Side of the city, around the intersection of Milwaukee, Irving Park and Cicero Avenues that give the area its name.

The massive Sears that once dominated is gone, replaced by a large Target that opened in March. There’s a new Aldi nearby and apartments of 6 Corners Lofts and other apartment complexes and many storefronts beckoning new tenants.

Unlike some other areas of town, dotted with shuttered businesses and shadowed in uncertainty, this slice of the city has a palpable vitality, ripe with possibility.

One constant remains. Though City Newsstand has changed its name to incorporate City News Cafe, it sits at 4018 N. Cicero Ave., where it has been for decades and where, early last Sunday afternoon, a crowd packed the coffee shop at the store’s front, listening to the polished folk singing of guitarist Carey Anne Farrell.

Other people wandered through the aisles of the 22,000-square-foot space looking at and flipping through some of the 4,500 — yes, that’s 4,500 — magazines that colorfully line shelves, neatly organized.

For all the doom we hear, especially those of us in the newspaper business, about the death of print, it is alive and well here.

Though the store often attracts customers from nearby states such as Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, some of whom spend as long as four hours in the store, last Sunday morning’s crowd was composed mostly of locals.

Among them was Ray Little, a pleasant talkative man who lives nearby. Now a Pace bus driver, he is one of 10 children (one of a set of triplets) and speaks fondly of his late parents. His dad, Ken, was an esteemed senior fire alarm operator for the Chicago Fire Department. “He was also a writer and historian,” Little said. “He has an honorary street named for him and this store carries some of his books. I come here all the time. And for a long time. I can remember when this place started as a newsstand on the corner.”

That was a long time ago. The corner newsstand — remember those, once dotting the city as conspicuously as Starbucks? — was where a young man named Joe Angelastri began working as a teenager in 1978.

He eventually bought the business and is still here and will tell you that his newsstand carried magazines and says, “I thought we’d stop at 200, maybe 300 titles. But there were always more we wanted to carry. We opened the store in 1989 and just kept getting more and more magazines.”

Not long ago there were as many as 7,000 titles and plenty of daily newspapers too. But things change and more than a decade ago Angelastri transformed what was once his relatively cluttered space into an airy, bare-brick-walled, high-ceilinged ink-on-paper emporium. There was a new coffee shop at the front of the store, its windows facing the street and its display case filled with all sorts of coffee-companionable treats.

The store has long carried a large selection of books from Arcadia Press, that prolific if uneven purveyor of local, heavily pictorial history books. But in recent years it has begun to expand its book stock and you can now find a great selection of Chicago-centric volumes, best sellers and some surprises.

“I really don’t think people will tire of reading in the traditional ways,” Angelastri says. “I still have confidence in ink on paper.”

Angelastri also owns the smaller but nevertheless magazine-packed Chicago-Main Newsstand in Evanston (both open seven days a week 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.) and he makes it a point to visit there almost every day, often riding his bike. He also often rides to and along the lakefront.

“That kind of passes for my recreation,” he says.

He is tightly tied to the store. He lives nearby and is at work every day. The store is his life. No wife. No kids. But a passion for print. Still, he is no Luddite. Though he prefers to read ink on paper publications and books, he is not unfamiliar with electronics and computers. The store has a website.

One thing sadly gone though is the four-page monthly newsletter called The Magbag, created by the store’s former associate manager/buyer, Mike Oelrich. He has retired and often performs in the cafe. But he no longer produces the memorable, informative and playful publication, which not only informed of new magazines available but offered new titles the store had started to sell.

On warm days, there are tables and chairs on the sidewalk outside, and as the nearby new apartments begin to fill with tenants, Angelastri anticipates a lot of new faces. “At first it might just be the curious, exploring the neighborhood. There might be some shock value for people that we still exist,” he says. “But I am hoping that some of those folks become customers.” (A good way to sample the neighborhood and shop at the store would be the third annual “Windy City Hot Dog Fest,” taking place June 1 and 2).

“I have a lot of optimism for the neighborhood,” says Angelastri. “I like the people moving in. I like what I do and where we are headed.”

There are still new magazines finding their way into the store, which claims, with no argument, to be the largest magazine store in the Midwest, maybe the country. The world?

Angelastri and I talked about the upcoming return of one of the most famous and popular magazines in history. Life magazine, which once had a weekly circulation of 13.5 million but ceased publication in 2008, is coming back and City News Cafe will have no trouble finding room for it on their shelves.