At a time when many large franchise bookstores are threatening to close their doors, the communities that make up the North Shore support three independently owned and operated bookstores. Two of them even acquired new ownership within the last year, keeping these beloved community institutions open and thriving. The Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka was bought by loyal customer Stephanie Hochschild (right), and Lake Forest Book Store was bought by Eleanor Thorn (center), who previously worked there as bookkeeper. Linda Illes (left) has owned and operated Books on Vernon in Glencoe for the past 11 years. Sheridan Road recently caught up with the three ladies of literature to find out what keeps our communities from turning the page on the print industry.
On what made them purchase their bookstore:
Stephanie Hochschild: I got into this because The Book Stall was a few blocks away from our house. My kids grew up learning to read there. Somebody mentioned to me that Roberta was thinking of selling, so I called her for coffee. I worked in the store as a volunteer for a while to learn the business and took the plunge. I just think it’s so important to our community; it’s important to our family, and we view this as a family adventure.
Linda Illes: I love books. I actually worked as a volunteer in a church bookstore in Lake Forest for a long time. My daughter-in-law who was managing the Caribou Coffee in Glencoe [down the street from Books on Vernon, for sale at the time] came to me and said, “Dear Mother-in-law, wouldn’t you like to buy a bookstore?” I thought about it for a while and thought, “Do I really want to do this at my time of life? I’m ready to retire.” I’ve been there for 11 years.
Eleanor Thorn: I worked at Marshall Field’s—then turned Macy’s—in Market Square [in Lake Forest] until the day the doors closed. It was a very small store, and we knew our customers. When I started at Lake Forest Book Store, I was like, “These are the same customers.” I love retail. I love the small community that we have. I feel so lucky to be a small business owner here. The staff that we have is just so fabulous. They all helped and picked up little pieces, so it helped me manage. I couldn’t have done it without their support. I’m just blessed.
On the challenges facing the bookstore industry right now:
LI: The big elephant in the living room, so to speak, is Amazon. They are the biggest competitor of every independent bookstore. People can sit at 2 o’clock in the morning or 10 o’clock at night and click their little fingers and get everything they want.
ET: I still feel that there is such a desire for coming in and getting recommendations from staff. I think the support in our community is so strong. That was one of the reasons I decided to go for it.
SH: I think there’s been more of a trend toward supporting local retail. I think as people see empty storefronts, they want to support their local stores. I felt like after I took ownership, there were lots of people who were very grateful that somebody was willing to step in and keep it going. I feel like there’s a resurgence of support.
LI: Shop local has become a big issue. All the Chambers of Commerce are getting more involved with it and they’re trying to spread the word. That makes a difference, too.
On what they have over the digital marketplace:
SH: What an independent bookstore can do that the digital marketplace doesn’t do so well is offer a really curated collection. One of the things we’re confronted with now is just an overwhelming number of choices and it’s hard to figure out what it is you really want. We also do events, like author visits. It’s just an amazing way for people to make a personal connection with a writer that they admire, or maybe even a writer that they don’t know about. That’s something that you can’t do digitally.
On the best part of the bookstore business:
SH: Being surrounded by books every day.
LI: I think the most fun thing is interacting with customers. It’s not the traditional behind-the-counter job, like a lot of retail is. You’re really there to interact. And I’m sure we all have customers that we go out of our way for. I can’t believe some of the places I have delivered books after a broken hip or a knee replacement.
ET: I just want to make sure our communities know how much we appreciate their business. When you walk into Barnes & Noble, all you see are young kids who don’t know anything. You come into our store and every single person behind the counter is so smart and can recommend anything. I just think it’s wonderful that we have such support.
SH: Helping someone connect with a book is a really special experience, because it is such a personal choice. You spend quite a while with that book. It’s the fun part of the job. Figuring out what people are interested in and what they like to read.
LI: People who read, who love books, and really who value that type of a business in their community. Because bookstores are a little bit different than a lot of other retail. It’s a far more interactive spot.