Local bookseller Augie Aleksy recently joined the ranks of President Bill Clinton, Alfred Hitchcock, author Angela Lansbury, and the Muppets: Each is a recipient of The Raven, a merit award given by the Mystery Writers of America (MWA).
Aleksy’s Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore, 7419 Madison St., was honored at the organization’s 65th anniversary gala in New York City last month, where the society also gave out a variety of other awards to members of the mystery- and crime-writing community. The Raven recognizes outstanding contributions to the field outside of written work; and MWA is a multichapter, national organization dedicated to promoting the genre.
Aleksy was tending shop last November when Larry Light, executive vice president of MWA, called the store to inform him that the national board convened and decided that he and another bookstore owner in Minneapolis had each won a Raven, which would be presented at a ceremony in New York.
“[I was] thrilled and pleased with the fact that others [besides] my family and old friends appreciate my work and efforts to make Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore the best I can,” Aleksy emailed the Review, when asked about the award.
Aleksy’s contributions to the mystery community abound. For 20 years, he has meticulously stocked the store’s shelves with personally selected history, crime and mystery fiction and non-fiction. He has also hosted world-renowned authors for book signings; most recently, a small crowd poured onto Madison Street as folks flocked to catch a glimpse of Erik Larsen, author of Devil in the White City. And he has offered his own versions of PBS’s “Meeting of the Minds” performances, which feature the simulated rendezvous of great historical figures like Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois, for example.
This is all a byproduct of a formula that Aleksy carefully concocted 21 years ago, before deciding to pursue his passion for this niche of literature by opening a specialty bookstore in Oak Park.
For much of the 1980s, Aleksy worked as a banker, but it was only when he was laid off in 1989 that he began to think about pursuing a lifelong passion.
The catalyst came from a self-help book that Aleksy’s wife gave him, which he claims helped steer him toward his current vocation.
“One of the chapters said if you’ve got the stamina, you should consider starting your own business with something you like and can handle,” Aleksy said.
He did just that, but only after carefully devising a business plan, one he credits to his MBA studies at Rosary College (now Dominican University) in the 1980s.
In early 1990, Aleksy sent out 3,000 questionnaires to households in Oak Park and River Forest that asked recipients to rank their top three literature choices from a list of eight genres (he even offered to pay a small fee to incentivize recipients to complete the surveys). Aleksy got a nearly 20 percent response rate (“Good for marketing,” he noted.) and most of the respondents didn’t even ask for the quarter he promised.
More importantly, though, the bulk of the returned surveys listed history and mystery novels as the first and second choices of respondents. Aleksy’s heart skipped a beat.
“I always wanted to do this,” he said, excitedly recalling the process.
“[But] if the statistics did not prove in my favor, I was not going to [open the store],” he added. Fortunately they did, and later that year, Aleksy opened the first Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore in Oak Park, and quickly immersed himself in his work and the MWA, which he immediately joined.
“He very quickly became integrated into the community because he’s a warm, open person. … People quickly took to him,” said Tony Perona, a writer and the current president of the Midwest chapter of MWA.
“This is a guy who is a really smart person who went into it with his eyes open and he executed the plan and his store ended up being a wonderful place for mystery folks to gather. … It’s delightful to see his bookstore do well,” he added.
Aleksy decided to move his store to Forest Park in 2000 in part because the foot traffic on Madison Street was appealing, but also because of the economic incentives that were offered by Main Street Redevelopment Corporation, a local nonprofit that was crucial in transforming the Madison Street commercial district over the last decade.
“They were very proud of the fact that I was in Forest Park,” Aleksy said.
As for his place in the mystery community, Aleksy and his wife, Tracy, who is actively involved with the store, traveled to New York in April to attend the MWA awards ceremony where received his Raven.
During his acceptance speech, Aleksy humbly thanked his family and his customers, and he likened the current state of his store to achieving a dream.