When the CTA opened the Oakton-Skokie station on his 62nd birthday, April 30, Bob Katzman took the confluence as a good business omen. A couple of blocks west of the new stop sits Katzman’s Magazine Museum (4906 Oakton St, Skokie; 847-677-9444), an anachronistic trove of some 100,000 periodicals. Dating back to the 17th century, they’re classified by 104 categories: “Circus cover stories,” “Fashion Dept. (Vogue, Bazaar, Cosmo: 1930s+),” “Kurds and Kurdistan.” “I keep trying to organize,” Katzman says during a recent tour of the storefront’s precariously narrow aisles. “Like some feverish beaver.”
The 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking inspired his latest grouping. “Here’s the shipwrecks department,” says Katzman, who has dark, thinning hair and weary bags that seem to hold up his deep brown eyes. “Here are the men’s magazines,” he says, picking up a copy of Oui, “Playboy’s answer to Penthouse.” “If Playboy is the girl next door, Penthouse is the slut next door—which doesn’t mean I don’t want to live next door to her.”
In today’s screen-obsessed society, the store’s slogan, “Where Print Still Lives,” sounds like the battle cry of a decimated but dedicated battalion. Katzman freely admits the sleepy shop is on its last legs. But the new El stop offers a glimmer of hope: more foot traffic and a convenient way for academics, collectors and retro-leaning urbanites to get to his doorstep.
“I pray often that [the Oakland-Skokie stop] is a godsend,” he says. “So far, the train has not delivered me any birthday presents.”
The stakes for Katzman are higher than for the average businessman. His wife of 34 years, Joyce, stopped working several years ago when she became debilitated by multiple sclerosis. She requires an expensive daily prescription injection to help treat the neurological disease. “Going out of business with a sick wife,” he says, “is a special kind of hell.”
Not that life was ever that peachy for Katzman. Raised on the South Side near 87th Street and Jeffery Boulevard, he says his mother was mentally ill and would lash out at her son. At 14, he ran away. In 1965, the 15-year-old opened his first newsstand in a self-made shack at Hyde Park Boulevard and Lake Park Avenue. With the income, he paid his way through the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.
When Katzman was about to start classes at UIC at age 18, doctors discovered cancer in his left salivary gland. Surgeons removed the lump—and half of his jawbone. Years later, they fashioned one of Katzman’s ribs into a jaw but cut a critical nerve, which paralyzed the left side of his face. “When photographers say, ‘Smile,’ I say, ‘I am!,’ ” Katzman jokes.
Eventually, he expanded to three newsstands. His upstart late-’70s distribution outfit circulated gay magazines when the establishment distributor refused. He shuttered his Grand Tour World Travel Bookstore on Clark Street north of Belmont Avenue in 1994 as the chains moved into town.
For 20 years, Katzman ran Magazine Memories in Morton Grove. But with his wife ailing and his suburban home for sale, he shut it down in 2009. Securing an income outside a newsstand failed, he says. So in 2010, he found a cheaper storefront and opened the Magazine Museum.
“Film Threat! Sight & Sound!” Katzman says, continuing the shop tour. “You know how many have sold since I put the film-criticism section together four weeks ago? Uh, none.”
One possible reason: sticker shock. I notice issues of Andy Warhol’s Interview on sale for around 50 bucks a pop. “The prices aren’t cheap, but being here isn’t, either,” he explains. “You’re paying for me” as archivist, librarian, gift expert.
“Give your grandfather a magazine from when he was in World War II—how do you think he’ll feel?” Katzman says, then pauses. “I don’t sell old magazines. I sell emotion.”