As the Review was wrapping up its interview with Centuries & Sleuths bookstore owner August “Augie” Aleksy, a regular customer walked in.
Aleksy, the customer and this reporter spent the next 10 or so minutes diving into Eastern European history and how it connects to contemporary politics, delving into fine details, before Aleksy’s wife, Tracy, called him to remind him that it was closing time.
This kind of interaction, Aleksy reflected (before politely ushering the Review out the door) was what has made Centuries & Sleuths special. He always wanted the store to be a place where people could come in and have discussions and make connections. As Aleksy prepares to retire by the end of the year, he is hoping that he will be able to sell the store to someone who would preserve that.
He announced his retirement at the end of May. Aleksy told the Review that it came down to the fact that he wasn’t getting any younger, and the negatives – the paperwork and the long hours – were starting to outweigh the positives.
“I love selling books, I love reading books, I love meeting the authors, arranging the discussions and having good discussions here,” Aleksy said. “I love the authors I met and … most of the people. I would say, like 99%, have been very good, very helpful, especially on the mystery side. But what it came down to [was that] the paperwork is becoming too tedious.”
Aleksy had always been interested in opening a bookstore, but it wasn’t until 1989 that he left his job in banking to take a plunge. He and his wife went to a workshop for booksellers, and he used his experience in banking to develop a business plan.
At the time when bookstore chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble dominated, the last thing Aleksy wanted to do was to open a “generic” bookstore. He was already interested in history, and when he looked at what people were checking out at the Oak Park Public Library, he noticed that it, along with mysteries, were two of the most popular genres. A survey he sent out to Oak Parkers confirmed his findings.
Encouraged, he opened Centuries & Sleuths at 743 Garfield St., near the spot where Oak Park Avenue crossed the Eisenhower Expressway. Aleksy said he simply couldn’t afford a space in any of the village’s major commercial corridors, and he hoped to turn the location to an advantage.
“I anticipated that people would come here on the way back from work,” he said. “But most people were only interested in getting home from work.”
Undeterred, Aleksy kept going – all while trying to find a better location. And eventually, an opportunity did come. A customer gave him a contact for Art Jones, then a vice president of Forest Park National Bank. In the late 1990s-early 2000s, Jones and bank president Jerry Vainisi were looking to diversify the Madison Street shopping strip beyond bars. He got support in buying the current 7419 W. Madison St. space – an appealing prospect for Aleksy, who was getting increasingly frustrated with leasing the Oak Park space.
Centuries & Sleuths made the move in 2000 – and while Aleksy said he used to dream of moving to Lake Street, he was happy with his decision.
He credited his wife with not only helping keep the store going, but writing the store newsletter and handling some other outreach efforts he didn’t have much aptitude for. Aleksy also appreciated the people he occasionally hires to help around the store, and the many customers and authors that helped build a community around Centuries & Sleuths.
The store regularly hosts events and meet-ups, though the pandemic took some toll on its busy schedule. Aleksy also said he was proud of the store hosting the Meetings of the Minds, partially improvised shows in which guests, playing historical figures, interacted to discuss topics ranging from religion to science.
Aleksy said he’s already gotten offers, but he wouldn’t sell the store to just anyone.
“I know it sounds conceited, but I’m very proud of this store,” he said. “I think it’s done so many things, it’s done wonders. As somebody said, I think it’s more of a community place. So I think it would be a terrible thing for it to become a cellphone store or something.”
Aleksy said he would like to see someone local, someone who understands Centuries & Sleuths’ value, take over.
“A couple of people we got [making offers] were maybe from the East Coast or the rural areas, but they didn’t seem to like the idea of it being in the populated area, [and when they find out it’s near Chicago], they’re nervous about coming here,” he said. “That’s why I think, if anybody, it’s going to have to be a local, a person who knew what they’d be doing.”
But whether he sells the store or not, Aleksy plans to retire by the end of this year.
When asked if he has any plans for what happens afterwards, Aleksy said that he’s “got ideas,” even if he isn’t sure how realistic they were at his age.
“I’d definitely like to travel, but both my wife and I are having difficulties getting around,” he said, adding that, while that and the back pain he’s been dealing with might get in the way, “I still want to do it.”
In the end, Aleksy reflected that, while leaving banking wasn’t the most financially prudent choice, it was the most rewarding.
“I came from a banking background, and I probably would’ve been better off financially if I’d gone with that,” he said. But then, I think that, when my son was maybe 10 or 11 years old, he got to sit down with [actors] Steve Allen, Sir Peter Ustinov, and talk to them on a one-on-one basis… this would’ve never happened if I was a banker.”