The Lessons of Failure | Book Review | Chicago Reader

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The Lessons of Failure

If you're going to start a bookstore, it helps to watch a few go under first.

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During a recent visit to Oak Park, some friends told me a nearby bookstore had a bunch of Studs Terkel books on sale. I went to check it out before heading back to the city, and there they were on a back table: more than half a dozen titles in brand-new condition, at remainder prices. Great--but did this mean that Studs was out of print? And why was that new copy of The Encyclopedia of Chicago selling for more than $20 off the cover price?

Studs wasn't out of print, Jason Smith reassured me. The Book Table, which he and his wife, Rachel Weaver, opened in July 2003, is just an unusual store. Much of the stock is publisher returns--titles that other retailers send back to publishers to be resold by wholesalers at deep discounts. The rest were a mix of review copies, remainders, used books in good condition, some new releases, and catalog titles like Catch-22, Lolita, and Slaughterhouse-Five--books, Weaver says, "you can't go a day without someone asking you for." New releases and catalog titles are discounted, as are special orders.

The Book Table, at 1045 Lake Street, is a labor of love, though as a new independent bookstore it would seem a risky venture: the number of independent bookstores has fallen by more than half since 1990, according to the American Booksellers Association. But the Book Table is turning a profit, which is largely a product of lessons Weaver and Smith learned the hard way through years of bookselling: between them they've worked at six Chicago bookstores, all but one of them now closed.

Smith, 32, grew up in Hyde Park, the son of a University of Chicago professor. After graduating from high school, he worked a series of jobs in lefty politics on the east and west coasts, including stints with Greenpeace, SANE-Freeze, and an abortion-rights group. But he soon retired from activism. "It's really, really hard being angry all day long," he says.

Back in Chicago in 1992, he took a job at Black Star Bookstore & Cafe in Rogers Park. It closed less than a year after he arrived, but he learned the basics of the business--in particular, he says, that it's important "to stock books that other people will want to read, as opposed to what you yourself want to read. The lesson is not to be a snob." After another job, at Bookseller's Row, he tried his hand at selling first editions, which was "the only poor decision I have ever made," he says. "I just didn't like it. And not liking it made it hard to make money at it."

In the summer of 1996 he took a job shelving at Transitions Bookplace, a new age store in Lincoln Park. He was quickly promoted to night manager, but he came in early to watch the book buyer at work. "I liked the new-book business," he says. "My old business had been about finding books. Once you found the book, selling it was no big deal. In the new-book business, it was all about selecting the book."

Rachel Weaver, 29, grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and moved here in 1993 to attend the University of Chicago. Disheartened by the prevalence of "18-year-olds who loved nothing more than to discuss Ayn Rand," she dropped out after a year and began working at a Kroch's & Brentano's store on 53rd Street. But the venerable local chain was nearing bankruptcy, and Weaver believes the corporate decision makers didn't do enough to help the Hyde Park store serve local residents and distinguish itself from the academic bookstores closer to campus. "We needed to be the African-American bookstore," she says. "Instead we were getting one bad golf gift book after another." The day the store closed in June 1995, she was on a train to the north side, looking for another bookstore job.

She found one at People Like Us, a Lakeview gay and lesbian store; within a month she was working both there and at a nearby Barbara's. Having come out as a lesbian about a year before, Weaver appreciated the connection to the community her job at People Like Us provided, and soon she went full-time. She also began studying creative writing at UIC and planned on an academic career.

But People Like Us faltered too. "They made the classic move-to-a-bigger-location mistake," says Weaver. The new shop, on Belmont near Racine, was "just enough off the beaten track to not be good. A lot of people found us and a lot of people didn't." In June 1998, nearly a year after People Like Us closed, she took a job at Transitions, where she and Smith worked night shifts together.

Smith was attracted to Weaver, "but I was a manager and she was staff," he says. "And she was a lesbian." But when Weaver heard from a coworker that Smith admired her, "my heart leapt into my throat. . . . A few journal entries later, I figured out I had a huge crush on him."

"There was that moment in time where, yeah, I was freaked, because I had sort of decided who I was," she says. "If I had to pinpoint it for somebody, I guess I'd call myself bisexual, because I certainly wouldn't obliterate anything from my history. I'm not anything the Christian church could get excited about--I wasn't 'healed.'"

She invited Smith for coffee. "I was like, 'Does he not know it's a date because he thinks I'm a lesbian?' And it was just one of those nights where you're talking and talking, and making all these connections, and there's just so much energy. So he's driving me home, and we pull up, and I say, 'By the way, this was a date.' And there was a very, very awkward moment. I think the word oh came out of his mouth. And there was an awkward good-night hug."

Soon after, they were "like this," Weaver says, crossing her fingers. They married in 2001, and shortly began discussing the idea that became the Book Table. "I knew that I could create a store," Smith says. "A melding of all the places I'd worked at--everything that worked in those places, with none of the things that hadn't worked."

They quit Transitions in late 2002, after settling on Oak Park's Lake Street commercial strip as a location. The town's demographics were similar to bookstore-heavy Evanston and Hyde Park, but there was a bigger niche to fill in the near west suburb. It had a proven appetite for discount books: before Crown Books declared bankruptcy in 2001, the chain's outpost in nearby River Forest, Weaver says, was one of its highest-grossing and most profitable stores. Plus they considered the presence of Borders and Barbara's just down the street a draw, not a hindrance. "People are already coming to Lake Street to buy books," she says.

The publisher returns--books that other stores couldn't sell--are the store's bread and butter. To dispose of them, many publishers stack them on pallets and sell them to wholesalers; Smith goes online and scours offerings from those wholesalers, looking for titles he believes he can sell. In some cases he buys all he can, as with the stacks of Dr. Seuss books in the children's section. "Sometimes you need to gamble, to say, 'I'm willing to buy a year's supply, or even two years' supply,'" he says. "Because you may never see that book again." For example, he recently purchased 200 copies of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead for $1.99 each, which he priced at $5.50 each--40 percent off the cover price. (Most discounts are closer to 50 percent, he says.) "The irony of our business model is, although we sell every book at a discount, every one is more profitable than the same book at a new-book bookstore," says Smith.

Nancy Deuchler, the manager of the Barbara's store down the street, welcomes the Book Table's presence. "I see people coming in here with Book Table bags," she says. "We need the business on Lake Street, just in terms of the number of people who are shopping here."

The confusion I experienced on my first visit reflects one of their goals for the store. "We're trying to shift people's expectations about what they can get for a discount," Weaver says. Transitions was an important inspiration. "A lot of what Transitions did was shift people's expectations about what a new age bookstore could be," she says. "You expect incense burning, dim lights, weird merchandise, and that's not at all what Transitions is. It's a pretty, well-lit store with high-end merchandise, Birkenstocks not required. We took that to heart in creating our own store: What are the stereotypes of the kind of store we're opening, and how do we break those stereotypes?" The Book Table's bright, clean space, attractive wood bookcases, and stacks of classics by the likes of Richard Wright and Eric Carle are all part of that battle.

Smith and Weaver say they started breaking even and paying themselves salaries years ahead of schedule, and are now earning close to what they made at Transitions. The Book Table claimed a 4 percent after-tax profit for 2004; Barnes & Noble Inc. claimed 2.9 percent for the same period. Weaver still hasn't ruled out the idea of going back to school. "Maybe once the store is in a position where I don't need to babysit it ten hours a day," she says. "But I'm happy with the decision I made. I'm proud of this store. It's our child, and we're impressed with the way it's grown up."

The Book Table

Where: 1045 Lake, Oak Park

Info: 708-386-9800

www.booktable.net

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.

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