The Book Table is celebrating 20 years as an independent bookstore in Oak Park. The local book retailer has defied stunning changes in the book business. It opened during the heyday of the big-box bookstores, standing by as the Borders’ empire, including an Oak Park store, crumbled. As the world shifted to online sellers, the Book Table held on, even weathering the storm of COVID-19 restrictions, which dealt a fatal blow to many businesses.
The Book Table is small in scale but mighty in its community presence.
“The store has grown and changed in ways we never expected, but in good ways,” said co-owner Rachel Weaver. “It’s been a great 20 years.”
Weaver co-owns the store with her husband, Jason Smith, whom she married two years before they opened the Book Table. The two met while working at an independent bookstore, both having previously worked at other independent bookstores, so it felt natural that they would open one of their own. They first attempted to set up shop in Chicago but were unlucky in that endeavor.
“No one would give us the time of day,” Weaver recalled. “We were these snot-nosed kids who wanted to open a store, selling a sort of dinosaur legacy product.”
So, they set their sights on Oak Park, a place that appealed to them for its proximity to Dominican University and for being a short train ride away from the University of Illinois Chicago. The village had a lot of scholars and professors as residents, Weaver said; the type of people who would appreciate an independent bookstore.
Like many other Oak Park storefronts, their location, 1045 Lake St., was being leased by David King & Associates. And unlike their experience with real estate agents in Chicago, Weaver said King immediately returned their call. He didn’t immediately want to take them on as clients, however. Oak Park, at the time, already had a Barbara’s Bookstore and a Borders on Lake Street.
“I thought they were crazy and didn’t want to rent to them, but over a period of time, they were relentless with me,” King said. “Finally, we took a chance on them,” said King referring both to himself and Mike Fox, a large commercial building owner in Downtown Oak Park.
Both the other bookstores ended up closing, but the Book Table prevailed, becoming a part of the fabric of the Oak Park community. Weaver and Smith live in the village too, about a block away from their shop, in a condominium sold to them by their sales representative from publisher Penguin Random House.
For their first few years in business, Weaver and Smith were the shop’s sole employees. After a while, their staff grew, with a part-timer and then a full-time employee. Now, the shop has seven employees, all of whom were full-time up until recently when one asked for a reduction in hours. Their employees have spent years working at the shop and that loyalty has kept turnover low, which Weaver called “wonderful.”
The Book Table managed to keep all employees on the payroll throughout COVID-19, despite the economic hardship facing local businesses due to restrictions that forced shops to temporarily cease operations. At one point during the pandemic, the Book Table was under such financial strain, its future looked uncertain. Weaver and Smith launched a GoFundMe in 2021, calling on the community for help. The campaign raised $93,000 of its $250,000 goal in its first day.
“We cried a lot; we were so overwhelmed by the love and support from our customers,” Weaver said.
From the beginning, the shop has had a dedicated group of regulars, according to Weaver. One such regular is Al Gini, local author and retired business ethics professor at Loyola University Chicago. He stops by the shop once a week with the list of books he plans to read. Each trip, he talks to whomever is working – and together, they compare what they have been reading. For Gini, as both a customer and an author, what sets the Book Table apart from other bookstores is the people who work there.
“They read books,” he said. “They don’t just sell books.”
And what they have in stock is always exciting. Up front, they keep the best sellers and new releases, the stuff you’d find on the New York Times bestseller list, but elsewhere in the store, the Book Table stocks what Gini calls “the old sellers, the strange sellers and the unexpected sellers.” The Book Table even carries Gini’s books. And if they don’t have what a customer is looking for, they order it – and within a couple of days, the title is available for pick up at the store.
“The bookstore is a little mini adventure, an intellectual exercise, a chance to find something new,” said Gini.