In 1989, August “Augie” Aleksy lost his job in banking during a mini recession that hit the financial world. It was the year of the 1990 Census, and he worked on that, deciding what to do next. But he didn’t have to think long.
Aleksy had always dreamed of opening a bookstore. He’d been friends with the owners of Left Bank Book Stall in Oak Park, running the shop when they were on vacation. So he thought maybe it was time to drastically change careers.
A numbers man, Aleksy didn’t want to go into it without data. He researched extensively at the library, doing a usage study that showed him the only genre of book that was checked out more than history and mystery books was DIY books.
But that wasn’t good enough. He knew what people were borrowing for free. But what were people buying? He sent surveys to over 3,000 homes in Oak Park and River Forest, each with a quarter attached so people could buy a stamp to send in their response. This survey was sent at a time that would include results of holiday book buying.
About 17 percent of recipients responded, which Aleksy said is a pretty good response rate. These results confirmed the same: History and mystery books were the second most purchased books, in this survey, after coffee table books. The holiday may have contributed to that.
A lot of people sent back the quarters too, with little notes saying, “You’ll need this more than I will.” One woman sent a stamp. “I needed the quarter,” she wrote, “but I’m sending you a stamp instead.”
Now that he knew what types of books he was going to sell, Aleksy, who has an MBA, used his business knowledge to put together a business plan, and he and his wife Tracy began to look for a spot to open their store.
They found a place in Oak Park on Garfield near the Blue Line. “Way off Broadway,” is how Tracy describes it.
Both Augie and Tracy attended a “bookseller school” in Minneapolis, a three-day event where they learned a lot, made connections, and bought a bust of Sherlock Holmes that sits on one of the shelves today.
They received decorating advice from a local business and collected pieces of furniture from unlikely places. Tracy was a school nurse at St. Edmund School, and when the church was clearing out some extra pews, she and Augie bought one. It’s still in their Forest Park location, adorned with plaques of people who’ve helped the business succeed throughout the years. (If you ask Augie how to get a plaque on the bench, he’ll tell you, “First, you’ve got to die. Second, I’ve got to like you.”)
In a junk store in Villa Park, the couple found a book cart, pipe rack and captain’s chairs for the shop. Other chairs were gifts from customers.
In early Nov. 1990 Augie and Tracy opened their doors for the first time, serving tea and scones. They’d begun.
Thirty years later, their store is now in Forest Park, a move they made in 2000. They’ve been embraced by the local community, and Augie has become very involved in it as well, serving as president of the Historical Society, organizing the DesPlaines River Anthology and being active in the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce, including serving as president. Among other things.
“I think of my store as a community center,” Augie said in a January 2020 interview with the Review after he received a grant, recognized by the James Patterson’s Holiday Bookstore Bonus Program. Walking into Centuries & Sleuths, you’ll notice bookshelves lining the walls and a big comfortable place with chairs – and the church pew – for sitting. That space, said Augie, is important for the events he hosts.
And when Tracy and Augie talk about the events, their excitement and pride is evident.
It started with visiting authors.
“Mystery authors are very generous,” Tracy said, and almost immediately upon opening in 1990 they began to host writers in their store for author discussions and book signings. Some of their first authors were Barb D’Amato, Bob Goldsborough and Bill Love, all mystery authors.
One of the surprise highlights of the early years was in 1993, when Augie reached out to the famous Steve Allen. Augie had started doing a Meeting of the Minds program in the store, inspired by Allen’s show of the same name, in which guests, playing historical figures, interacted to discuss topics ranging from religion to science. Augie reached out to Allen’s publisher, asking if Allen would like to sit in on a meeting.
The publisher responded with something even better. Allen was promoting a new biography, and would Augie be interested in hosting a book-signing at Centuries & Sleuths?
The caveat? The store needed to bring in at least 100 people for the event.
Augie said at least 300 people showed up, and Allen was terrific.
In one weekend in 1995, the store hosted Steve Allen again and also Senator Paul Simon and Sir Peter Ustinov.
Author visits and book discussions continued, and Meeting of the Minds developed. Over the years, the store has hosted 18 of these theatrical events, in which participants 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, resulting in information, interesting and often humorous discussions.
A favorite Meeting of the Minds of both Tracy and Augie involved people playing unscripted parts of Bram Stoker, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, G. K. Chesterton, and actress Ellen Terry, known in her time as a rather loose woman.
During the performance, the character of Terry lamented the fact that nobody respected her for her talent; rather, they focused on how many men she’d been with.
“By the way, how many men have you slept with?” asked the Oscar Wilde character.
“Probably not as many as you,” shot back Terry in an unscripted exchange that most found humorous but prompted one couple in the audience to walk out, said Tracy.
“Getting the Meeting of the Minds going was a dream come true,” said Augie. “I never thought I’d be able to get people to do it.”
The amount of time and dedication people put into it was extensive, with months of research and true dedication to the roles. Longtime employee John Cline agreed once to play the part of Raymond Chandler, but only if he didn’t have to shave his beard for it. Augie agreed, but Cline showed up to the performance clean-shaven anyway.
“It takes a lot of dedication,” Augie said.
The bookstore hosts book clubs, meetings and other events, and it’s this facet of owning the store in which Augie finds real passion.
“The physical space is exciting – the books, or course. But the action is exciting too; the authors coming in, and the Meeting of the Minds,” said Augie. “There’s real exchange of ideas.”
The store focuses on mystery and history, and there is a story behind every artifact inside it. On a high shelf lining the walls, objects sit. Teddy bears. Busts. A raven. A whale. Every item has a story, be it an award or a gift or something purchased during a special time, like the bust the couple bought on that first book seller’s conference they attended.
Tracy said people often ask about the name of their store. “Why not just call it History and Mystery?” they wonder.
“People think they don’t like history,” Tracy said. “So we wanted a name that had a little more intrigue, that might draw someone in who might not otherwise stop by.”
Tracy talked about a book called “The Speckled Monster” by Jennifer Lee Carrell, the story of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston who were pioneers in immunology, fighting the medical system of the time to successfully wage war against smallpox.
“There are so many books like that,” Tracy said. “Books that bring history to life.”
Over their 30 years in business, the Alexys have seen many changes in the bookselling world. Borders coming and leaving the corner of Harlem Avenue and Lake Street. Many independent booksellers going out of business, including Barbara’s in Oak Park. Amazon.com taking a big slice out of the book-selling pie.
But Augie and Tracy attribute their success to being a community center, to holding events, to their personal love for history and mystery, and to their very loyal customers, many of whom are regulars.
It’s a cheerful store: sun streams in the front windows. Seating is plentiful. Augie will ask if you need help, but let you wander and explore if you’re just browsing. He’s willing to look anything up on his computer, and he’ll order books he doesn’t have in stock: even if they’re not a history or mystery book.
He’s 72, and Tracy said he’s been thinking about retiring. But it’s not the right time. He’s sold a lot of gift cards, she said, and he wants to honor those investments.