Surviving as an independent bookseller or small business takes constant evolution — and a diehard love for what you’re selling. Perhaps that’s why Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore (7419 Madison St.) was recently recognized in author James Patterson’s Holiday Bookstore Bonus Program.
The program distributed $25,000 to 500 independent bookstores across the country in December 2019. Competition was stiff, with a record 2,541 bookstores nominated by employees or owners. According to the American Booksellers Association, “Patterson personally selected 500 winners from bookstores all across the country.”
Owner August “Augie” Aleksy moved Centuries & Sleuths to Forest Park in 2000 from its original Oak Park location, where he sold books since 1990. He said the $500 grant money is nice, but the recognition is just as important.
“It’s definitely a challenge to be an independent bookseller today,” said Aleksy. “If you’re going to do it, it needs to be a vocation, not a job. You have to really love it.”
Even big chain bookstores, he said, fail because oftentimes the employees don’t love what they’re doing. “Cashiers are cashiers. They’re not always readers. The stores are selling widgets, not books.”
A customer came into the shop, and Aleksy cheerfully helped her, explaining how his store is organized by topic and pointing out the sale tables. She asked if he had a specific book. He didn’t, but mentioned he could order it.
“That’s OK,” she responded. “I’ll just go online and buy it.”
“I can’t lie,” said Aleksy when the customer had left. “It hurts when people say they’re going to buy stuff online.”
Aleksy, who was part of a group of business owners and residents who opposed the opening of the long-gone Borders Bookstore at the corner of Harlem and Lake Street in Oak Park, said that surviving as an independent bookstore takes creativity, in addition to a love of books and reading.
“What makes me different is the events I hold and what I do with the physical space,” he said. “My store is really quite inefficient physically. There shouldn’t be so much empty space.” He gestured to the central section of the store, where a bench and two armchairs are arranged into a comfortable reading area.
“I probably should be using the space for more bookshelves, more inventory,” he said. But he keeps the room open for performances and meetings. “I like to think of myself not just as a retail store,” he said. “I think of my store as a community center.”
Over the last 30 years Centuries & Sleuths has hosted plays, regular book clubs, meetings, author events, and his well-known Meeting of the Minds series, which he hopes to start up again. Performers in Meeting of the Minds are assigned a historical character and spend months learning about that person. During the actual “performance,” a moderator asks unscripted questions of the historical characters, generally four of them. The resulting discussion is informative, interesting and often humorous.
“We put a lot of time in it,” said Aleksy. “It’s a lot of fun.”
Innovation such as this is essential to survive as an independent bookstore or small business in today’s economy. In a “Marketplace” article by Dan Kraker (marketplace.org/2020/01/07/indie-booksellers-innovate-to-survive-the-age-of-amazon/), the author investigates trends in independent bookstores, and though the survival rate is improving, the road ahead requires almost constant evolution.
“Since bottoming out in 2009, the number of independent booksellers has grown by about 35 percent nationwide. There are now more than 1,900 across the country, who together operate more than 2,500 storefronts,” said Kraker.
Kraker quoted Harvard business Professor Ryan Raffaelli, who has studied independent bookstores and their survival in a market dominated by Amazon.com.
“It’s pretty remarkable what they’ve been able to do in terms of repositioning themselves,” said Raffaelli, who attributes this to a few things, including the Buy Local movement and the fact that, like Aleksy, independent booksellers have made themselves into community gathering places, not just stores.
Patterson, in a statement about the grants awarded to independent booksellers including Centuries & Sleuths, reiterated the sentiments he’s expressed before about the importance of books and reading.
“I’ve said this many times before, but I can’t say it enough: booksellers save lives. I’m happy to acknowledge them and the important work they do in any way that I can this holiday season,” Patterson said in the statement.
As for Aleksy, he’s happy to open his store every day. If you walk by and peer in the window, you can see him lovingly doing inventory, standing on a chair to put books on a higher shelf. He’ll show you artifacts in the store that relate to plays he’s put on in the space, and he’ll give you a tour, a huge smile and a history lesson.
He nodded when as he looked around the store. “The dream for what I wanted has worked out well,” he said. “And for that I am eternally grateful.”