If you ever meet a more prolific book lover than Augie Aleksy, let me know.
This man is filled with an obvious love for the written word and those who put words to paper (or computer screens). What makes his love 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 business 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-some years he has owned and operated a charming bookstore called Centuries & Sleuths, originally in Oak Park and since 2000 at 7419 Madison St. in Forest Park.
A while ago he told me this: “It’s nice to talk to a human being when you’re looking for a book recommendation for yourself or as a gift; you have the opportunity to view a variety of books with words, pictures, photos, maps; you don’t need to buy the book to look it over and see if it’s what you might want; the atmosphere of the store can increase your love of books and provide an environment that encourages intelligent discussion of both fiction and non-fiction; and I’ve seen friendships form and even a romance that started in a discussion group blossom into a marriage.”
Lately I’ve been worried about him and everyone else here who has been in the business of selling books in what many consider to be old-fashioned. Would the pandemic reduce store traffic so much that it would lead to closures?
That hasn’t been the case, and I’m happy to report… Oh, let Augie tell you, “I’ve actually been very lucky during the pandemic, with 2021 being one of my best, most successful years. There was a pretty steady stream of people buying gift certificates to give to friends and family. There was a hunger to read.”
Books have been on my mind lately, the kind that exist between the covers. That’s because I was pleasantly surprised a few weeks ago watching people walking home with grocery bags straining under the weight of bargain books they bought at the Newberry Book Fair.
“Three dollars for a copy of (Mike Royko’s) Boss,” said Thomas Blackburn, who had driven down from Wisconsin, pulling the book out of his bag. “Three dollars!”
We’ve all heard the dire predictions for bookstores for years and seen big chains like Borders close for storage. But independent bookstores abound in the area, their owners creative and resilient. And they can have hope. Forbes magazine earlier this year said that “US publishers sold 825.7 million printed books in 2021, up 8.9% from a year earlier.”
Arlene Lynes, who has owned the Read Between Lynes bookstore in Woodstock since 2005, long ago got to the heart of it, telling me, “A bookstore helps support the local economy because most of the booksellers live where work and use local services. The more someone visits and buys from their local bookstore, the more likely it is that booksellers will get to know them and their preferences and provide recommendations and an alert for new releases that suit their tastes. Browsing in a bookstore leads to discovery, because while shopping, you might end up seeing something that absolutely intrigues you, or is the perfect gift for that special someone. It’s a place to attend events, especially for kids, and most of them free, and a favorite author or to be introduced to a new one.”
Aleksy agrees, saying, “The store becomes a community center, not only for Forest Park, but also for the authors. We have conversations here, not lectures. I know so many authors who are nice people, always eager to meet their readers and support each other.”
This is also at the core: bookstores can foster community. Think of taverns. Yes, it would be easier and much cheaper to drink at home, but what would you be missing, even from the guy or woman on the next bench shouting about the weather? It’s the same with movies, theater and sporting events. They all relate, I firmly believe, to our natural need for human contact, especially in a world that is becoming increasingly icy and so lately closed off.
There is a certain magic that books can provide. As Jerry Seinfeld once rightly said, “A bookstore is one of the only proofs we have that people are still thinking.”
You can meet thousands of these thinkers and a number of books 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 the many, many stalls, buying books and interviewing writers such as Jonathan Eig, Studs Terkel, Dan Rather, Karen Abbott, Pete Hamill … it’s a list of tall.
I know a lot of writers who will be there this year. I have read many of their books and will surely read more. Writers will write.
While I prefer to read ink on paper, I have no quarrel with those people who, for a variety of reasons, like their books electronically. Readers will read.