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“Why people read what they read is a great unknown and personal thing,” said Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly.
Our motives are indeed wide and varied: we read for pleasure, to extend our knowledge, to be whisked away to another place and time, because we’re saturated in noodling around the web.
There is no empirical answer for the personal reading choices we make.
We may appreciate strong literary characters, an author’s mastery of prose, colorful imagery, powerful insight, a keen sense of humor, immersing ourselves in an exhilarating escapade.
Books magically transport us and unexpectedly transform us.
A voracious and old-fashioned reader, I love to shop for books.
I cherish the compact, lightweight volumes that serve as easy traveling companions. I like the dry, aromatic scent of an old book. I relish the strange feeling of knowing I can stop or start a storyline, the lives of so many characters frozen in time, simply by flipping open or closing a book.
Before I ever stepped foot inside the The Book Table in Oak Park (1045 Lake Street), I liked what I saw. Scrawled brazenly across the awning are the words, Fiercely Independent, and inked across the doors: Monday through Saturday 9am-9pm, Sunday 11-6pm (books at my disposal, any day of the week!).
Upon entering, my affection for this literary wonderland swelled profusely.
I like the pleasant, camphorous smell. I fancy the tall, tidy shelves, filled to the brim with entertaining yarns and edifying volumes (60,000 books) bulging with facts and figures, tales of joy and woe, miraculous feats, practical advice, love affairs, history, and mystery. I admire the wooden tables that serve as a meeting place for Winston Churchill, Pablo Neruda, and Oscar Wilde, an unexpected chance encounter.
And then there are the staff reviews: perceptive and honest, neatly printed on notecards, tucked carefully onto shelves. I’ve come to rely on them; I’ve watched as other customers congregate round them and pluck the recommended volumes with eager hands from shelves.
If Hollywood decided to present audiences with the story of Rachel Weaver and Jason Smith, the husband and wife duo who co-own The Book Table, it would unfold as a classic meet-cute, two bibliophiles bumping into each other for the first time in a bookstore, well-matched cohorts, eventually building their own beloved bookshop, working together side by side.
This is exactly how Jason, a political activist whose work took him to Boston, San Francisco, and ultimately Chicago, came to meet Rachel, an English major, who worked in bookstores to pay for her schooling: their lives intersected while selling “art objects” (Jason’s term for books) in a Chicago bookshop.
Jason and Rachel knew they wanted to open a book store, the ultimate customer-centric shop. Between the two, they had amassed 20 years in retail experience. In 2003 they chose Oak Park for their independently owned business, what they refer to as “the Cheers of bookstores.”
“There were many ideas about the kind of bookstore we’d like to have, but this was the final idea,” Jason shares, motioning to the space around us.
Rachel and Jason derive enormous pleasure from connecting with customers. The first time I asked for a book recommendation, Rachel halted her work, came around the counter, and walked me to a shelf.
Not being used to this kind of invested customer service; I thought for a split second that maybe I was mistakenly following her on a break to the lavatory. But after listening to the criteria I set forth for a good read, it was with telepathic accuracy that Rachel chose a book for me: a laugh-out-loud story that I consumed with startling rapidity.
I returned to purchase the same book for a friend, and I picked up another endorsed volume which turned out to be, surprisingly, even better than the first.
As for why we gravitate towards the books we read, Rachel offers insight: “I think the beauty of books is that you can experience someone else's life without actually having to be that person or have that life.”
Both owners are avid readers, with Rachel reading on average one book per week, which helps when interpreting what books to put into customers’ hands. “Communication and understanding are key,” Rachel explains. “We’re reading books as well as reviews; we have the ability to discuss the books with our customers.”
“We’ve learned a lot over the years,” Jason adds, “We’ve tailored our store to the needs of the community. The customers quickly taught us. We now place special orders, we increased our number of new books and magazines, and we’ve added more science and math books.”
An extraordinary selection of new and used books, you’ll find incredible diversity as well as books that are fundamentally cheaper here. While visiting, I heard a silver-haired woman croon, “I had no idea they had such great prices here!”
Poetry, politics, religion, metaphysics, children’s books, an entire rare books section, their well-edited mix of books earned them the title of Chicago Reader’s number one bookstore in 2010.
Jason describes the bookselling industry as unique and special: “It’s not just about selling a thing; we’re bringing ideas to our customers. At The Book Table we have a product mix and an identity.”
The product mix includes eco-friendly merchandise, greeting cards, cool tees, and perfect gifts for teachers, teens, and those hard-to-buy-for friends and family members in your life.
Jason offers, “I can’t imagine wanting to be anything other than a bookseller, but if I could choose to be one character for a day, it would be the greatest bookseller character ever in literature.”
Add the long hours that both Rachel and Jason dedicate to their store, an unrivaled commitment to their customers, and a passion for books that is impossible to quantify, and it's easy to understand why they're both becoming known as Oak Park's greatest booksellers.
“This is the store we wanted: it is the store we want,” Jason adds with a contented smile, “And our goal is to continue doing this for as long as we can.”
Shop online at www.booktable.net, follow The Book Table on twitter, or find them on facebook for updates and info on upcoming events. Do you have a favorite read from The Book Table? Tell us about it!
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