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Independent Bookstores, Part IV

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Closer to the city, we find The Book Table, Magic Tree Bookstore , East Gate Café, in west suburban Oak Park. Husband-and-wife owners Jason and Rachel opened The Book Table in 2003 with a 2,800-square-foot store. In 2008, they moved next door into a storefront almost twice as large.

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They sell second-hand books and publishers’ overstock. They also special order books not in stock, and can usually do so with a 20% discount from the list price. The Reader named The Book Table the Best Bookstore in the Goods & Services category in 2010.

The street address is 1045 Lake Street, Oak Park, Illinois 60301. The phone number is (708) 386-9800.

Founded in 1984, Magic Tree Bookstore is a children’s bookshop located on the ground floor of the historic Scoville Square building, at the southwest corner of Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street in downtown Oak Park. Friends and co-owners Irish Yipp and Rose Joseph opened Magic Tree Bookstore in 1984.

Four years ago, Iris Yipp’s husband, lawyer Phil Yipp, wrote on Wednesday Journal’s OakPark.com, “Magic Tree Bookstore, here in Oak Park, recently celebrated its first quarter-century in business! A bouquet of thank-yous to the many loyal patrons who have supported this business over the years.”

Yes, I am delighted (though full disclosure compels me to note my marriage to one of the owners). But in a way, I am also surprised. Independent bookstores by their nature are not financially thriving businesses. Add to this the well-established causes for many independent bookstores recently closing their doors: chain stores… discounting books to levels their independent counterparts cannot match; big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart pushing best sellers at a loss to pull in customers; people purchasing books at reduced prices on the Internet via Amazon and other online retailers - and no sales tax, thank you. One wonders how independent book shops have lasted this long.

Yet Magic Tree has survived, thus far. The owners - Iris Yipp and Rose Joseph, and former partners Sharon Patchak-Layman and Jan Shoup - were most fortunate to open and operate their business just when children's literature started becoming the fastest-growing segment in the business. They compiled a diverse collection of children's titles that cannot be matched in the Midwest, never mind their chain-store competitors. Their foreign language selection is second to none. They sell books the old-fashioned way -hand-selling by committed employees who read and review the books they recommend - while also maintaining a highly active presence on the Web. The store serves as a community hub by holding weekly story times for preschoolers, in-store concerts, book clubs, writing workshops and, of course, author visits and signings. And they do provide discounts on books.

Remember the Harry Potter book releases? In partnership with fellow businesses, Oak Park public entities and its ardent supporters, Magic Tree staged enormously popular events, drawing thousands from around the country, along with national media attention.

The address is 141 North Oak Park Avenue, Oak Park, Illinois 60331. The phone number is (708) 848-0770.

East Gate Café is a bookshop as well as a restaurant. It is located two blocks west of Columbus Park. In 2008, husband-and-wife owners Pat and Olya Dailey decided to expand their Café/Bistro with a bookshop and gift shop.

The address of East Gate Café is 102 Harrison Street, Oak Park, Illinois 60304. The phone number is (708) 660-9091.

In adjacent Forest Park, we find Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore. As the name suggests, Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore specializes in history books, biographies, and mystery novels.

August Paul (“Augie”) Aleksy III is the sole proprietor. Back when Lane Phalen wrote The Booklover’s Guide to Chicagoland, published in 1992, the store was located at 743 Garfield Street in Oak Park.

She wrote, “After some 500 years, the Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore jury has found Richard III not guilty of kidnapping, murder, and treason. On July 28, 1991, history came alive as The Trial of Richard III was performed ad-lib by real lawyers, a jury, and a real judge, the Honorable Eugene Wedoff. Witnesses testified and calmly discussed their lives and deaths. About 75 people attended the unrehearsed production and excitedly discussed prospective topics for another such event.”

This was just one of many activities conducted by owner August Aleksy and his wife, Tracy, that makes Centuries & Sleuths a lively bookstore. Earlier in 1991, they presented a 5 foot by 9 foot diorama which included over 2,000 miniature hand-painted figures…

Harriette Robinet dedicated Walking to the Bus-Rider Blues, published in 2000, to August Paul Aleksy III, proprietor; his wife, Tracy Reynolds Aleksy; and their son, August Paul Aleksy IV of Centuries and Sleuths, a history-mystery bookstore in Oak Park, Illinois. Augie, Tracy, and AJ have been responsible for getting hundreds of my books into the hands of readers, young and old. Thank you, guys.”

I asked Augie Aleksy if his family works with him at the store. He answered, “My family (Wife Tracy & Son A.J.) are only unpaid volunteers. I have one part-timer John Cline who is the retired director of the medical library at Hines Veterans Hospital in Maywood, IL . He's great ! He knows books, reads them quickly, has a great rapport with customers and is always willing to learn more.”

My questions about when the store originally opened, when it moved from Oak Park to Forest Park, and if the new store was larger or smaller, elicited this answer from Mr. Aleksy, “We opened for business November 3, 1990 at 749 Garfield, Oak Park, IL 60304 and moved in 2000 in August to 7419 Madison Street, Forest Park, IL 60130 (The best decision we ever made.) The size and shape of the store is about the same with total area of 1500 SF with 1200 SF of showroom with no pillars in the Forest Park store. “

In 2007, the Chicago Tribune declared Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore one of the top ten booksellers in Chicago. Nationally, the Mystery Writers of America awarded the store The Raven for 2011 for a non-author's contribution to the Mystery Writing Industry.

Two years ago, the Chicago Tribune’s Rick Kogan wrote, “The independent bookstore is a vanishing breed, perhaps not as quick to leave the scene as some of the large chain operations (remember the Borders stores at Michigan Avenue and Pearson Street and at Lake Park Avenue and 53rd Street?), though both species are beleaguered by the Internet.”

But all bookstores have their joys, especially around the holidays.

Centuries & Sleuths is among the best in the land. Its oak bookcases are filled with best-sellers and surprises. It is a place for lingering in two Windsor chairs, a rocking chair and a church pew.

Aleksy is a passionate man and also something of a showman, orchestrating all manner of events at his store. Of course, he hosts the conventional readings and signings… but also opens his shop for literary club meetings and theatrical presentations.

He is ever enthusiastic and smart, and he loves books. The store's website… features this quotation from ‘The Haunted Bookshop,’ written by Christopher Morley in 1919, ‘We have what you want, though you may not know you want it.’

That's the thrill inherent in any bookstore. And there are quiet shopping/eating/drinking thrills nearby too. The bookshop sits amid a few blocks' stretch of stores, restaurants and saloons on Madison Street. Most are independently owned, which gives the street a lovely small town feel, very much alive with surprises.

In the course of his article, Kogan mentions that because of the cemeteries, Forest Park has a living-to-dead ratio of 30-to-1. I asked Aleksy, “Did that fact lend the town an atmosphere that would make it a fortuitous place to relocate a bookshop focusing on history books, biographies, and mystery novels?”

He answered, “Rick Kogan's comment is quite accurate. In fact, as president of the Historical Society of Forest Park, I engineered (impresario) the writing both a book and play the Des Plaines River Anthology a collection of soliloquies of those buried in Forest Park cemeteries (e.g. Michael Todd, Billy Sunday, Belle Gunness, Haymarket Martyrs, Emma Goldman, Ernest Hemingway's grandmother, mother & father, Adolf Luetgart, and many more) written by local authors (e.g. Rich Lindberg, Arnie Bernstein, Rob Elder, Rob Loerzel, Frances McNamara, Amy Binns-Calvey, etc. with editing by Emily Victorson of Allium Press of Chicago and Jean Lotus of the Forest Park Review, the play from the book was written by director and actor Amy Binns-Calvey music and performance by Kathryn & John Atwood)… Also the Historical Society just this April, 2014 received the prestigious award for Superior Achievement from The Illinois State Historical Society.”

It hosts meetings of book discussions groups, including the G.K. Chesterton Society, The Mystery Discussion Group, and The History Discussion Group (Clio’s Chroniclers). The address is 7419 Madison Street Forest Park, Illinois 60130. The phone number is (708) 771-7243.

Crimson Books, Inc., which specializes in military history, had a store at 440 Thomas Avenue in Forest Park, but appears now to be an Internet-based business. In addition to the Web site, one can write them at P.O. Box 734, Forest Park, Illinois 60130. The phone number is (708) 366-0100.

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