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"Get Out of Your Car and Hoof It!"

How Laura and John Toops stumbled on the secrets of the western burbs.

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When the Reader talked with Laura and John Toops a year ago, they were dealing with the first round of huzzahs and complaints about their recently published book, A Native's Guide to Chicago's Western Suburbs. They had already heard from people who said things like "you got my name wrong," Laura told writer Cara Jepsen, who concluded that the book might be the couple's last collaboration for a while. Now, either recovered or gluttons for punishment, the Toopses are making plans for a second edition, to be published as soon as next year. "The most surprising thing about the western suburbs is how fast they're changing," Laura says. "The book came out in August of '99 and some things are already out of date."

Maybe so, but A Native's Guide is a little gem. "It's a great bathroom book," admits John. "Go in there, you can finish a chapter by the time you're done. You won't be left hanging." One of a series on local areas published by Lake Claremont Press, it has 16 chapters of breezy takes on history, sights, shopping, dining, and entertainment in places like Elmwood Park, Lisle, and Westmont. The Toopses got roped into doing it after John bought Laura a copy of another Lake Claremont book, Chicago Haunts: Ghostlore of the Windy City, for Christmas a few years ago. "I liked it so much I E-mailed the publisher, who happened to be looking for someone to do the western suburbs," she says. Before you could say Harwood Heights, Laura, whose day job is in public relations, John, a full-time househusband, and their two children, then ages six and four, were piling into the family car every weekend, heading for exotic destinations like Wheaton or Downers Grove, notebook in hand. "We made the kids enjoy it," says John. "'You will enjoy this.' Eventually they did.

"Mostly it was driving up and down streets, saying, 'Hey, this looks interesting--let's check it out,'" John recalls, adding that the workload was about fifty-fifty, with him doing all the driving and Laura doing most of the writing. (He wonders, by the way, if we noticed his stirring dedication to vanished venues on their beat, "guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes of the millions of people who bought this book.") "We were looking for the quirky little funky places nobody would notice because [in the suburbs] they're always speeding past in a car," says John. "If there's a message in this book, it's get downtown in a burb, park your car, get out, and hoof it." Among their favorite finds: the American Movie Palace Museum in Elmhurst (hidden away above the York Theatre), the Naperville Riverwalk (a little bit of green in the heart of suburbia), the Hala Kahiki bar in River Grove (tiki gods, waitresses in muumuus), the Harley Davidson Mall in Berwyn (bikes and hog paraphernalia in a former bowling alley), and the cache of Sears catalog houses in Downers Grove. On the other hand, John says, he's seen enough of Walgreens and Starbucks. "It'd be perfect if they'd just put the Starbucks in the Walgreens," he says. "There's three Walgreens going up out here now, all out of the same cookie cutter. What I want to know is, are there that many dying old people that need prescriptions?"

A Native's Guide is not about Walgreens, Starbucks, or any other chain stores or shopping malls. "We made a mistake when we included Egg Harbor," John says. What they were after was one-of-a-kind, indigenous stuff, like Norridge's Maurice Lenell Cookie Company, with its free samples of broken merchandise; the Hinsdale Theatre, which has a vintage pipe organ that rises out of the floor; and Melrose Park's Come Back Inn, where the best seat in the house is under the stuffed moose butt. For the next edition, says Laura, they'll expand to include more of the Fox Valley area.

Laura Toops recently reworked Slapstick, a novel she wrote 20 years ago, and published it electronically. (It's available through LTD Books and the big dot-com booksellers.) But it's in her nonfiction writing capacity that she will partake in a panel discussion with John, "Metropolitan Chicago, the Literary Heart of America: Nonfiction," at 7 PM Wednesday, October 11, at Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore, now in a new home at 7419 W. Madison in Forest Park. Other writers on the Chicago Book Week panel are David Cowan (To Sleep With Angels), Ulrich Danckers and Jane Meredith (Early Chicago), Richard Lindberg (Return to the Scene of the Crime), and science editor Jim Ritter. It's free; call 708-771-7243. Laura will also join a panel discussion on electronic publishing at 7 PM Thursday, October 12, at Barnes & Noble, 1 South 550 Route 83 in Oakbrook Terrace. Call 630-571-0999.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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