By the book: How independent bookstores have survived the recession

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Rachel Weaver and Jason Smith built The Book Table on being “fiercely independent,” surviving when even the big chains did not. | MARY COMPTON ~ FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA

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In 2003 Rachel Weaver and Jason Smith were the new kids on the block.

They opened The Book Table in a storefront in downtown Oak Park just a block from two well-established chains, Borders Books and Music, and Barbara’s Bookstore. New and used books were displayed in rough wood crates. Many people gave the fledgling business a shelf life of a year at best.

But by 2008, as the recession forced other small businesses to close their doors, these two entrepreneurs had developed a loyal clientele, and expanded into an adjacent storefront. Both Borders and Barbara’s disappeared into insolvency over the next two years.

And as their 10th anniversary nears, The Book Table has evolved into one of the village’s premier businesses.

How did they do it, in a recession? One answer is outreach.

“We’re part of the community, and that means we have a vested interest in the continued success of groups who are working to make the village a better place to live,” said Smith, who is on the board of Downtown Oak Park.

“Throughout the year we donate books to auctions, sponsor fundraisers with program ads and even sell tickets for the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest’s annual spring housewalk,” he said. “But we make our largest contribution on ‘Black Friday,’ traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year, when we donate 10 percent of all our sales to support West Suburban PADS.”

Christmas is also a time of outreach to the community at Town House Books in St. Charles.

“We discount children’s books 20 percent for customers who purchase the books and donate them to the local Head Start program. Then we wrap the books and deliver them to Head Start for distribution to parents of children enrolled in the program,” said David Hunt, who purchased the bookstore in 1992.

Hunt also expanded into an adjacent storefront four years later with the addition of a café that is open for lunch weekdays and Sunday brunch.

“We’re off the beaten path so the café is an important part of our business,” he said. “Coffee and a good book are a great combination.”

The café is also a destination for members of local book club members, and Hunt also attracts customers by hosting “Unabridged,” a book discussion group for adults that meets there the second Sunday of the month. Titles of books to be discussed are posted on the store’s Website.

Smith and Weaver’s mantra, “Fiercely independent,” is emblazoned on The Book Table’s awning, also reflects that hands-on philosophy. For example, their book-buying decisions are based more on customer feedback than corporate “command.”

“Because we spend long hours in the store seeing what books are going out the door, we’re able to spot and react faster to trends,” said Smith. “And we listen when our customers tell us what they are currently reading or would like to see on our shelves.”

For example, when people told them they would like to buy magazines in the store along with their books they responded by including a new section of current magazines when they expanded.

“That’s something a buyer for a chain, who has no feedback from customers, would never do,” Weaver said.

While on-line services like have helped to drive other stores on the shoals, Weaver and Smith view online competition as less of a threat than a chance to “happily coexist.” Their innovative response was to put their own catalog online. Customers can browse the catalog then pick up their order at the store or have it shipped anywhere in the country.

Location can be a game changer for a small business trying to carve out a niche. Because the store is just a short walk to the Ernest Hemingway Museum and Birthplace, Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio and Unity Temple, The Book Table stocks a large selection of books on architecture and local history that appeal to both tourists and locals.

And the booksellers have taken advantage of their proximity to these cultural icons to form Writers at Wright, a partnership with Unity Temple, the Oak Park Public Library and Midwest Media that is dedicated to bringing the finest authors to speak at Unity Temple, Wright’s architectural masterpiece in Oak Park.

Weaver and Smith had a long history in the book trade where they learned the secrets of how to get the best books and sell at the best prices.

“We enjoy the challenge of matching people with the right book,” said Weaver. “We don’t get it right every time. But we have a pretty high success rate and it’s gratifying when we do get it right.”

At Town House, David Hunt agrees that a knowledgeable staff who can direct customers to just the right title is essential. He also took it a step further.

“People who are looking for a meaningful gift idea appreciate the post-it notes we attach to both new titles and staff favorites that give them a summary of the book. And if they don’t see what they want, we’ll explore their preferences until they find just what they’re looking for,” Hunt said.