How is work with the bookstore? Let this owner tell you

If you ever meet a more rambunctious book lover than Auggie Alexie, let me know.

This person is filled with a palpable affection for the written word and those who put words to paper (or computer screens). What makes his attachment so unusual is that he has long been at the business end of the literary world.

“People think all I do is sit around and read,” he says, laughing his signature laugh. “I’m so busy with work that I’m usually reading three books at once, juggling them and trying to find a quiet booth at Louie’s Diner when I can escape for lunch.”

For 30 years, he owned and operated a charming bookstore called Centuries & Sleuths, first in Oak Park and since 2000 at 7419 Madison St. in Forest Park.

He told me this a while back: “It’s good to talk to someone when you’re looking for a book recommendation for yourself or a gift; you have the opportunity to look at different books with words, pictures, photos, maps; you don’t have to buy the book to check it out and see if it’s what you’d like; the atmosphere of the store can enhance your love of books and provide an environment that encourages intelligent discussion of both fiction and non-fiction; and I’ve seen friendships formed and even romance that started in a discussion group grow into marriage.

Recently, I’ve been worried about him and everyone else here who has gone about selling books in a way that many consider old-fashioned. Would the pandemic reduce store traffic enough to cause them to close?

That’s not the case, and I’m happy to report… Oh, let Auggie tell you, “I’ve actually been very lucky during the pandemic, with 2021 being one of my better, most successful years. There has been a fairly steady stream of people buying gift vouchers to give to friends and family. There was a hunger for reading.”

Books that exist between the covers have been on my mind lately. That’s because I stood in pleasant wonder a few weeks ago, watching people go home with grocery bags weighed down by the bargain books they’d bought at the Newbury Book Fair.

“Three bucks for a copy of (Mike Royko’s) ‘The Boss,'” said Thomas Blackburn, who had driven up from Wisconsin, pulling the book out of his bag. “Three dollars!”

We’ve all heard the dire predictions for bookstores for years and watched big chains like Borders close for good. But independent bookstores dot the area, their owners creative and resilient. And they can be hopeful. Forbes magazine earlier this year said that “US publishers sold 825.7 million print books in 2021, up 8.9% from the previous year.”

Arlene Lynes, who has owned Read Between the Lynes in Woodstock since 2005, long ago got to the point, telling me, “The bookstore supports the local economy because most booksellers live where they work and use local services. The more people visit and buy from their local bookstore, the more likely it is that booksellers will get to know them and their preferences and provide recommendations and alerts for new releases that suit their tastes. Browsing in a bookstore leads to discoveries, because while you’re shopping, you might see something that absolutely intrigues you or is the perfect gift for that special someone. It’s a place where you can go to events, especially for kids, and most of them free, and a favorite author or meet a new one.”

Alexi agrees, saying, “The store becomes something of a community center, not just for Forest Park, but for the authors. We have conversations here, not lectures. I know so many authors who are decent people, always eager to meet their readers and support each other.”

It also gets to the point: bookstores can foster community. Consider the taverns. Yes, it would be easier and much cheaper to drink at home, but what would you miss, even from the boy or woman in the next seat chattering about the weather? It’s somewhat the same with movies, theater and sporting events. I firmly believe that they all have to do with our inherent need for human contact, especially in a world that has become increasingly frigid and so recently closed.

There is a certain magic that books can provide. As Jerry Seinfeld once so rightly said, “The bookstore is one of the only proofs we have that people still think.”

You can meet thousands of these thinkers and a number of booksellers at the upcoming Printers Row Lit Fest, which takes place along Dearborn Street just south of Ida B. Wells Drive.

I’ve had many adventures and good times there over the years, browsing many, many stalls, buying books and interviewing writers like Jonathan Eig, Studs Terkel, Dan Rader, Karen Abbott, Pete Hamill… it’s a long list.

I know a lot of writers who will be there this year. I have read many of their books and will certainly read more. Writers will write.

Although I prefer to read ink on paper, I have no problem with those people who, for various reasons, like their books electronically. Readers will read.

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