The Book Stall in Winnetka celebrates 30 years
Two hours after Sally Bedell Smith had discussed her book, Elizabeth The Queen, at The Book Stall, owner Roberta Rubin herself was folding up chairs in the speaker area.
That attention to detail – making it easier for customers to browse bookshelves by moving chairs – is one of many reasons Book Stall has endured challenges from big box bookstores, online sales, e-books and others.
On Feb. 11, The Book Stall will celebrate 30 years of Rubin’s leadership in the Elm Street location. Today she oversees a bookstore with a national reputation and legions of local fans. All this success was difficult to imagine in 1982, when she agreed to become a partner in a small bookstore.
At the time, Rubin had a vision of what she wanted a bookstore to be; her partner wanted a different sort of bookstore, something small and clubby.
So Rubin bought out her partner, and in 1982, she became full owner of The Book Stall. By the end of 1986 when the store moved to its present location, at 811 Elm Street, the book shop was well on its way to fulfilling the vision its owner had: a home for book clubs, a place to host guest authors, and a staff that could recommend great reads. All were designed to bring people into the store.
“I wanted a bookstore that became what (The Book Stall) became,” said Rubin. “I did two things right away that put me on the map,” Rubin said. “I started book clubs and I brought in authors.”
Her first challenge was to get publishers to take the store seriously.
“I remember going to New York and their calling me the owner of this cute little bookstore,” Rubin said. “I was determined to show them we were a serious bookstore.”
And show them she did. Eventually, the trade group, American Booksellers Association, was so impressed with Rubin’s success, it put her on several of its panels.
The Book Stall at Chestnut Court will celebrate the opening of the store at 811 Elm St. in Winnetka this weekend.
The store has invited many prominent Chicago authors to attend the festivities.
Among the events, The Book Stall will offer a champagne toast from 2-5 p.m. Saturday and a 20 percent discount for customers on Saturday and Sunday.
Authors and book clubs
Attracting guest authors helped establish the store’s reputation. Getting her first guest author, Robert Parker, was “quite a coup,” Rubin said. Parker’s mystery thrillers were quite popular at the time, 1982-83 (one of his characters was developed into the TV show “Spencer for Hire”).
Other authors followed. She names three writers who cemented the Book Stall’s reputation: President Jimmy Carter, J.K. Rowling and Ann-Margaret.
Rubin had a hunch that book clubs would be another draw for the store. Before becoming a bookstore owner, Rubin was a Great Books leader, so she mailed invitations designed by a calligrapher listing the books to be discussed in sessions guided by Rubin herself as well as several professors from Northwestern and the University of Chicago. Selections from an early book club included Ironweed, Stones for Ibarra, A Passage to India and Pride and Prejudice.
Over the years, the book clubs have expanded. Besides fiction, the store’s clubs include cookbooks and women’s writers. A new club this year focuses on non-fiction, a first for the store. The children’s book club has 300 members; each child receives a book a month. An adult book club follows the same format.
Besides the book clubs and author events, Rubin invented ways to get her customer’s attention. Having those early book club invitations designed by hand was one way to get attention. Events such as parties for each new Harry Potter book drew scores of new fans. To expand the author events, she partnered with Chicago venues to offer downtown venues for writers to speak to their fans. The Book Stall also sells books at many of the author events at Chicago Humanities Fest. The Book Stall mails a newsletter to its members who also receive a 10 percent discount. An active website www.thebookstall.com offers more about the store.
Mary Joyce DiCola, who helps with buying and events, has worked for Rubin for 18 years. “She is the most amazing marketer in the world,” she said. “Her mind works very fast. You’re just there to help. She has tremendous skills.”
Events coordinator Jennifer Geenhau said Rubin knows her customer: “She knows what books will be successful.”
Initially Rubin expected to keep the bookstore for 10 years or so, but after The Book Stall was named “best independent bookstore” in the nation in 1993, she changed her mind.
“That set the standard,” Rubin said. “I’m staying.”
Over the years, she has expanded the Elm location at least three times. A chance meeting with the owners of Caribou Coffee in 1997 led her to offer them an adjacent site allowing shoppers to enjoy coffee and browse her bookshelves without leaving the store.
And while she has gradually scaled back her work in running the store, Rubin continues to represent The Book Stall. “When I first started, she did everything: payroll, buying,” said DeCola. “She’s gradually given up a lot of that. Now she’s still involved in the day-to-day operations, but she’s become the public face of the store. That’s what she does best,” she said.
Betsy Balyeat who helps run the children’s book section, is one of 20 staffers who work at the store both full and part time. She too is a Rubin booster: “She’s fun, very high energy. She gives us free rein (in the children’s department). We get to make all the decisions.”
Balyeat typifies the quality of the staff. A retired teacher in the local school district, she brought a master’s in children’s literature with her when she started seven years ago.
Over the years, the independent bookstore has seen its share of challenges. When Borders and Barnes & Noble opened stores in neighboring towns, sales at The Book Stall dropped.
But Rubin’s store prevailed. She had mixed emotions about Borders’ recent bankruptcy. In a letter to customers, she wrote, “While we have viewed Borders and other big box bookstores as direct competitors, we are still, in the end, both soldiers in the army of selling books face-to-face. It gives us no satisfaction to see another brick and mortar bookseller in trouble.”
Borders’ closing, however, opened up new opportunities for The Book Stall. First came more foot traffic and more sales. Gift certificates to Borders from the Wilmette Library to young readers now went to The Book Stall, attracting more customers.
Rubin, the shrewd marketer, offered to honor the 10 percent discount Borders Club members had enjoyed.
“That worked out nicely for us,” Rubin said with a smile. “I can’t say I’m sorry (the store closed). Twenty years ago, when they moved in on me, I was terribly affected. Now we feel our model works better.”
Two years ago when eBook sales took off, the staff braced for another bitter battle. But this year, that threat seems to have abated.
“The eBook user is still there, but readers still want to keep real books at home,” Rubin said. “You might read an eBook on a trip, but have real books at home.
I want to read and feel my books,” she said. “I want to hold it in my hand as I read.”
Rubin, 74, is coy about the future. She has said that her children are not interested in taking over the shop. She mentions putting together a letter about “our store,” but then her voice trails off and she returns to express gratitude for support over the years.
“I have to say thank you to everyone,” she said.
She added, “Books are invaluable friends. They open up your world. They take you out of yourselves.”