book table

“The Book Table” goes it alone


This week’s announced closing of Borders Bookstores leaves just one remaining major U.S. brick-and-mortar bookseller, Barnes & Noble. Within the past year, one independent (or as their awning states..FIERCELY independent) bookstore in Oak Park, IL, The Book Table, has witnessed the closing of two of its rivals, Borders and Barbara’s Bookstore, both within a block of their store. But husband and wife Book Table owners Jason Smith and Rachel Weaver view it as a solemn occasion rather than a cause for celebration.
I asked Jason about their business and the outlook for the future of independent bookstores:

Q: How have you managed to survive when others around you have gone under recently?

Jason: I think our biggest strength is that we have two owners that are very involved in the day-to-day operations of the store. One or the other of us is always behind the counter. We’re able to respond to customers in ways that other stores aren’t and it allows us to be more involved in the community as a whole in a way that chain stores aren’t.

Q: You’ve cosponsored some very interesting guest lecturers at Oak Park’s Unity Temple, some of which I’ve blogged about. How did that series come about and how do you decide who to book and who would you most like to book for an appearance?

Jason: Writers at Wright is a partnership between The Book Table, Friends of the Oak Park Public Library, Unity Temple Restoration Foundation and Midwest Media. We came together because we felt there was a need to bring high quality authors to Oak Park and we thought Unity Temple is a perfect venue for them to showcase their talent. Midwest Media and The Book Table share the responsibility of booking authors. Since it’s a partnership, we all need to agree on the various authors. I have a list of my favorite authors and am very excited that one of them, Neal Stephenson, will be at Unity Temple in September. In the world of graphic novels, we’re very excited to have Daniel Clowes and Seth coming in October. Art Spiegelmanm and Craig Thompson are probably the two graphic novelists that I’d most like to have at Unity.

Q: Where do you see the book selling business heading in the next few years?

Jason: The book business is in flux right now and anyone that thinks they know what’s going to happen is just pretending. With Borders liquidating, this country is losing 6.2 million square feet of books display space. The big winner will be Amazon and eBooks. I think any industry that is dominated by one company isn’t a healthy industry and if that industry is selling ideas then it’s even more dangerous.

Q: What do you like best about Oak Park and your Lake Street location?

Jason: We’re constantly amazed by the feeling of community in Oak Park. We get to interact with so many amazing people every day at our counter and just walking down the street. We love the impromptu community meetings as people run into each other browsing in our store.

Q: Do you have a personal all-time favorite book or author?

Jason: My list of favorite authors is Haruki Murakami, Richard Powers, Neal Stephenson and David Foster Wallace. Rachel’s is John Ashbery, Kazuo Ishiguro, Audre Lorde, Sylvia Plath and Zadie Smith.
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Thanks to Jason and Rachel for providing some insight into their livlihood. Please support them and other independent bookstores, which are becoming all too scarce in the current economy. And when you stop in, say “Hi” to Jason and Rachel and let them know you read about them here.

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Cartoonist Lynda Barry at Unity Temple in Oak Park

Cartoonist/ artist/ author Lynda Barry spoke and signed books at Oak Park’s Unity Temple this past Tuesday evening at another wonderful event arranged by Oak Park’s premier independent bookstore “The Book Table”. Recently a similar presentation spotlighted graphic novelist Chris Ware”, and while Lynda Barry’s loose childlike drawings are in many ways the antithesis of Ware’s tightly rendered work, they share a talent for getting deep under the skin of their semi-autobiographical characters.
While I was familiar with Ms. Barry’s work as a cartoonist from her strip “Ernie Pook’s Comeek”, which ran in the Chicago Reader from 1979 through 2008, I haven’t kept up with her other efforts, which includes seven books and a spoken word CD.
Her latest book is “Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book”. While those looking for a cohesive storyline may be disappointed, “Picture This” is a gem for those in search of inspiration and dry humor. The book is a celebration of Ms. Barry’s child inspired art, with recurring motifs including meditating monkeys, chickens, rabbits, and pseudo ads for the fictional “DON’T” brand cigarettes.
The event was moderated by Oak Park author Elizabeth Berg, who is clearly a huge Barry fan. One slightly awkward moment occurred when Ms. Berg asked about Lynda’s school day romantic flings with Simpson’s creator Matt Groening and NPR radio’s Ira Glass, at one point asking “What kind of a kisser was Ira Glass?”. Lynda politely deflected the question, simply saying “That was a long time ago.”
Today Lynda lives in her birth state of Wisconsin with her husband, a prairie style restorer and watercolorist who added color and backgrounds to some of her pictures in the book. While his additions are skillful, I personally prefer the non-collaborative work in “Picture This”.
Among other surprising revelations of the evening’s presentation is the fact that her favorite printed comic is the mainstream “Family Circus”. She recalled being literally overcome with emotion at finally meeting FC cartoonist Bil Keane in person.
The main theme of the night and the core message of “Picture This” is Lynda Barry’s mission of helping everyone recapture the creative spirit that we all possessed as children. She credits her Evergreen State College teacher Marilyn Frasca with many of the techniques she uses in her creativity workshops.

Many thanks to Lynda Barry and “The Book Table” for a wonderful presentation.

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