Bob Katzman of Bob Katzman's Magazine Museum in Skokie first called last summer.
He really wanted a story, he explained, because, well, he had such a great story to tell: He had 140,000 magazines and newspapers, flags from around the world, buttons that read "Kiss Me I'm Norwegian" and "Kiss Me I'm Trinidadian." And, frankly, he didn't know how much longer he could hold out. Things were grim: His wife has multiple sclerosis, he has endless health problems — never mind that the market for back issues of old magazines, always precarious, was soft. I told him I knew of him but was busy at the moment.
Plus, he does this. He has a history of guilt-tripping reporters. Later, his wife, Joyce, said: "Bob's mother taught him how to elicit sympathy. He dwells on it. Probably because he's smart and bored out of his mind."
Then, a month ago, as I was mourning the death of the print edition of Time Out Chicago, which folded just as I was getting over the death of Newsweek, the death of Spin, Gourmet, etc., I thought of Bob Katzman.
I called him and said it felt like the magazine apocalypse was edging closer. He sighed and said, "There are four magazines left in America." Then he said that, as much as he would like to meet up, he had a surgery planned, his 35th surgery since he was 18. (He is 63.) It was rotator cuff surgery. He needed to close the store briefly; bad as business was, he hated the thought of not being there if someone needed an old magazine.
We agreed to talk in June.
Last week, I found him behind the counter of the Magazine Museum, which he has run off and on since 1985. Though he reminds you frequently he has periodicals dating to the 1500s, it's not a museum. In fact, it felt like the living embodiment of the magazine business itself, stuffed with tidbits, still standing but tattered.
"Are you here to write a eulogy?" he asked.
No, I said, but …
"Don't write a eulogy," he said, "because I'm alive, I still have this store, I still sell magazines, and if some son of a (expletive) from Chicago wants to drive here and get their father a once-in-a-lifetime gift for Father's Day, a magazine from the day their father was born or the day he got out of reform school or the day he lost his virginity, damn it, I got their magazine! Don't think, 'Oh, poor Bob, surrounded by 80 zillion magazines, all alone all day.' People don't want to go to a place that's sad! Trust me, nobody wants to read that story."
Then he added, because if nothing else Katzman is a realist: "But all of this is going to end, of course. Nobody wants to do this, no kid dreams of spending every day with old magazines, waiting for someone to buy one. My concern now is the impossibility of continuing. I have to be in good health to do this, yet this place is my pain and my remedy. That's new, for you. Usually I just tell people it's a 'paper prison' I've built."
He rooted around behind his counter and came up with a Chicago magazine issue from 1965, flipped to a story about Chicago teenagers who were committed to their jobs and pointed to a picture of himself. He was 15 in the photo; his hair was much darker, but he already looked like his older self, with a smirk and a glare.
What the picture couldn't say was that, three years later, at 18, he would be diagnosed with salivary gland cancer. It couldn't hint at how Katzman would lose part of his jaw, how doctors would use part of his hip to replace it. Then, when that didn't work, they would use a rib. It couldn't hint at how a severed nerve would paralyze half of his face. Or how later he would have brain surgeries and tumors and many resulting scars.
"In medical terms, I'm a (expletive) disaster," he said.
On the other hand, the picture of that cocky, confident 15-year-old suggests something more: At 15, he started a newsstand in Hyde Park to put himself through University of Chicago's Laboratory Schools. Eventually he ran five Bob's Newsstands throughout Chicago, with 55 employees; started a deli, bookstores, a magazine distribution business; wrote a five-part, self-published memoir ("I write about violence, crime, love, grit, corruption, determination, friendship, carpentry …"); he tired, selling or closing every business he had started; then, in 1985, thought about selling old periodicals. His first old-magazine business burned down a month after opening. Five years later, he reopened in Morton Grove, then closed and reopened in Skokie in 2009.
You're devoted to the tangible, I said.
He stood silent for a moment, and I started to speak, and he said, no, no, let me think. Then he said, slowly: "I like the sound of typing, I like the way a newspaper feels in my hands, I like to sit under a tree with a magazine. And I don't want some (expletive) computer where you push a button and then an electrical storm from the sun means you can't read a story anymore. So I guess I'm a dinosaur. But I'm a worthy dinosaur."
"Do you feel this is your last stand?" I asked.
"'Feel'?" he replied.
Bob Katzman's Magazine Museum is 100 feet long and 18 feet wide, musty and endearing. Every surface seems covered with magazines in plastic bags, every aisle lined with posters propped against stacks of magazines in such a fashion that the only way to walk is by placing one foot ahead of the other, as if on a tightrope.