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Seven people sat in a circle at Centuries and Sleuths bookstore Sunday afternoon for the monthly history book discussion. The selection for March was Roland Bainton’s biography of Martin Luther entitled “Here I Stand.”

On the one hand, seven people gathering to talk about a man who has been dead over four hundred years is not front page news. On the other hand, it may just be emblematic of why Madison Street is experiencing a Renaissance.

When Wal-Mart moved into town in 1994, there were many doom and gloom predictions that the big box store would ruin the small businesses on Madison Street. Clearly that has not happened. Why? Augie Aleksy, the owner of Centuries and Sleuths, argues that service is the main reason people keep coming back to his store.

When he did a survey of his customers, Aleksy discovered that people tried the store out because of the selection and atmosphere in the store. They kept coming back, he said, because he helped them find the books they wanted. The big box stores had neither selection nor service, and, according to the survey, even the big chain bookstores had employees who often could not help customers find what they were looking for.

There were only seven people discussing Luther in Augie’s store on Sunday, but those seven found something they could get nowhere else. The discussion was led by John Helmke, who is not only a Lutheran pastor but has also done graduate work in church history under one of Roland Bainton’s students.

Likewise, the participants in the group not only had read the book”well, most of them had”but they clearly enjoyed the intellectual give-and-take that comes with trying to understand what is happening to us through the lens of history. One man, a Roman Catholic, laughed as he recalled, “When I was in Catholic grade school I remember making the mistake of asking the nun who was teaching our class a question about Martin Luther. ‘He was an awful man,’ she replied. ‘He was an ex-priest who married a nun.'”

Heads in the grouped nodded at the familiar story.

The group had not come primarily to make progress on their spiritual journey. What they came for was knowledge that could help them understand the issues facing them in their everyday lives.

On Sunday the issue happened to be the divisions between Christian denominations in general and the growing rapprochement between Catholics and Lutherans in particular.

Interestingly, the Catholics in the group sometimes used the discussion as an opportunity to explore the changes in their own tradition. When the subject turned to private confession, one man recalled growing up in St. Mel’s Parish, where on Saturday afternoon, the lines of people waiting to enter the confessional would extend out the door and around the corner.

Discussion groups were part of Aleksy’s original business plan. They are also a passion for him. Aleksy has made a business out of what he loves. He combined his master’s degree in history with an MBA, allowing him to make good business decisions as he helps customers find the history books and mystery novels they are looking for.

Before the meeting officially began, Aleksy read a quote from the book section of the Sunday Tribune in which Eric Arnesen was reviewing a book that chronicled the forced sterilization of more than 65,000 Americans during the 20th Century. Aleksy read, “If readers today are unfamiliar with this tale, it’s less because its history is secret’ than because Americans’ command of history is not necessarily what it should be.”

Helmke was a little more hopeful about this country’s interest in history. He said he was astounded at the success of the History Channel, noting that Americans seem to be getting their history in the form of biography more than as military/political history.

The history book discussion group meets at Centuries and Sleuths at 2 p.m. on the last Sunday of the month. His mystery book discussion gathers at the same time on the third Saturday of each month, and once or twice a year he sponsors an event he calls “Meeting of the Minds.”

Centuries and Sleuths has been located at 7419 Madison Street since moving from Oak Park five years ago.