By Elizabeth Dunlop Richter

There’s a new star on Chicago’s theater scene and his surprising name is The Understudy. Normally, an understudy would only appear when the original star couldn’t continue, but this understudy was designed for top billing from the start. The understudy, the creation of Former DePaul Theater School students Danny Felder and Adam Todd Crawford is a new bookstore/café in Andersonville with a unique focus: books about theater and theater scripts.

Andersonville is one of Chicago’s trendiest neighborhoods, known for its boutiques, bookstores and cafes. Why would anyone open a new coffee shop/bookstore in this already saturated neighborhood? Crawford and Fender, who were studying acting and stage management respectively, watched a combination cafe and theater bookstore that fills a need in Chicago’s theater community. Initially skeptical about a location in Andersonville, the two were encouraged by the neighboring Chamber of Commerce and others who saw the potential for creative clients. You may also have seen the slogan on the jewelry store across the street: “Anything is possible.”

Open since late March, delighted customers have exceeded Crawford and Fender expectations for a niche audience. “It was really wonderful. I keep saying that it’s a testament to being a small business owner in Andersonville and also being part of the theater community; These are two groups that really show up for their community,” Fender said. Over 1,000 books were sold in the first week. “Our shelves were packed and suddenly they looked like Swiss cheese,” Crawford said.

Adam Todd Crawford (l) and Danny Fender greet a customer

Just two weeks after the opening on Monday afternoon, it became clear just how diverse the audience is. The tables in the corner window of the café were occupied, and the comfortable chairs halfway up the bookstore were occupied; There was a line for coffee and pastries.

Frances Lampson, like many residents in the neighborhood, came because of the environment. “I love coffee, so I’m always looking for new places in Andersonville. I also love the theatre, although I don’t participate… the atmosphere is great, the coffee is great, they’re really friendly and knowledgeable,” she said. “It’s so important that so many understand our vision and what we’re trying to create,” said Fender. “[One] one of our regulars was … just told me yesterday, “I’m not a theater person at all. I just love being in this space and love being with other creative people.’”

Frances Lampson, customer

Emma Durbin, a playwright, has been coming here twice a week since it opened. “I love plays and love how the owners care about the community and care especially about aspiring writers… Theater people don’t get that many special things and just have a space that isn’t being connected to an institution, but being able to have a community is very special,” Durbin said, “you get more [books] than just what is popular.”

Theater professionals particularly appreciate the carefully curated collection of books, screenplays and other theatrical materials. “Normally, when a bookstore opens, you are sent a list of recommendations for what the opening inventory should look like. But because we are Being so specialized, with the help of some curated lists, and with the help of people who give us suggestions when they come in the door, we’ve been able to expand the stock even further. We’re essentially handpicking every single title,” Crawford said. The understudy also carries used books donated by friends and clients. There are some titles that students need for the lessons. “We’re always looking! We want to have different accessible price points for these titles… I like that used books are mixed in with the new books because it adds to the element of discovery,” Fender said.

Blake was only in Chicago for three months and living just a mile from The Understudy when he was drawn to the theater book collection. “Better than I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I’ve already spent quite a bit of money. It’s my third or fourth time here now and I got my paycheck on Friday…I’m more of a theory nut…methods and storytelling and formations and structures – the implementation of theater practice.” Blake develops new projects while working at a friend’s business and exploring possibilities in science. “I want to share access to a high level of craft and theater education and knowledge,” he explained.

Blake explores the collection

Associate John Payne adapts books

The employees at The Understudy are just as enthusiastic as the customers. Like many actors, John Payne needed a day job and was excited when he heard about the opening of The Understudy. Most recently he appeared in Botticelli in the fire as Leonardo Da Vinci, and the director of that show brought the job posting to his attention. “I applied right away and met them and right away I knew they were going to be great bosses and this was going to be a really cool place… It’s very real and based on the idea of ​​community… you.” [normally] Go into a bookstore and say, “Do you have any plays? And they say, yes, we have three in the corner and there are two A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ It feels so good to be a part of something people are passionate about.” John is working on a site-specific production of Waiting for Godot and continue to audition for new plays.

Crawford and Fender had hoped to open in July 2022, but city bureaucracy stepped in. Approval took much longer than expected, delaying the opening by eight months. The delay came up against another project the couple had to organize. “We have planned [our] wedding and
the store at the same time. I think working together on these big, tremendous life events has really allowed us to create a vocabulary to work with together. Both were like a show together,” Crawford said. The wedding went smoothly. You are philosophical
about the delay and found they had more time to select state-of-the-art coffee equipment, learn more about sustainable coffee culture and refine store design that seeks to reflect historical references in a fun and vibrant way. The look of Understudy is inspired by
the late 19th century Arts and Crafts style with industrial finishes reflecting both theatrical glamor and the hard work that goes into the production of theatrical art. For example, the arch separating the café from the bookstore features bespoke, locally printed wallpaper influenced by 19th-century artist William Morris, whose design adorns the store’s bookmarks. The cafe has whimsical tile floors; Theatrical artifacts line the tops of the bookshelves. The hallway to the restrooms is papered with script, and the powder room has a dressing room-worthy lighted mirror.

Custom archway wallpaper

Floor tiles for cafes

Hallway papered with writings

Mirror for the women’s toilet

Crawford and Fender have discovered a new group of customers every weekday between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. thanks to their proximity to Pierce Elementary School. Parents take their kids to school and fill the cafe for morning coffee. Families stop on the way home After school snacks. The Understudy serves its purpose as a meeting place for people of all ages and professions who care about storytelling, the idea that ties the bookstore to the café.

The story behind the creation of a theatrical production is considered just as honorable as the story of the sustainable and where possible local products used in the cafe, such as directly traded Metric coffee and coffee mugs by local potter Craighton Berman. Pastries come out Phlour, a family bakery in the neighborhood around the corner on Bryn Mawr Avenue. The charming mural on the side of the building was painted by Chicago muralist Joe Kraft; Even the plants in the window are from the nearby Gethsemane Gardens in Andersonville. “We’re celebrating the hard work it takes to make beautiful things happen…it’s the story through whose hands it came to you,” Crawford said. There are many hands at work in the understudy, and they don’t need a star calling in sick to perform.



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