Tilden Cummings Jr., author program coordinator at Chicago’s swanky Union League Club, calls bookseller Roberta Rubin a “rock star in the publishing world,” but writer Rochelle Distelheim’s words are more apt. In response to the news that the 75-year-old Book Stall at Chestnut Court has been named PW’s Bookstore of the Year, Distelheim wrote on Facebook that Rubin is “godmother to Chicago’s literary population.” Indeed, Rubin, effervescent and spry at 74, seems almost like a fairy godmother on a spring afternoon, as visitors crowd into the 600-sq.-ft. back office behind the 4,400-sq.-ft. sales floor, waiting for her to grant their wishes. The president of Winnetka’s Chamber of Commerce wants a book donation for a luncheon door prize; the representative of a Wilmette school wants 12 books donated for a visit by Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel; several authors and self-publishers from all over Chicagoland want the store to carry their titles.
“This is what goes on every day: interruption upon interruption. The buzz is to go see Roberta,” Rubin jokes, as she graciously fields requests from the stream of visitors, in between taking calls on a phone that almost never stops ringing. A Vintage publicist offers a stop by E.L. James, who’s touring for Fifty Shades of Grey; power brokers in Chicago and Manhattan ask about book suggestions for corporate gifts; friends and colleagues congratulate Rubin on the 30th anniversary of her purchasing what was then a 2,000-sq.-ft. store in 1982, and for being named bookstore of the year; then there’s the friends-of-friends, wanting names of literary agents or book publicists.
“I talk to everybody. I love connections,” says the Chicago native, who’s lived in the North Shore area along Lake Michigan for most of her life. Rubin began selling books part-time at the Glencoe Book Shop in the mid-1970s, while raising her four children. Her son, John Rubin, is the president and CEO of Above the Treeline; the store has been using Above the Treeline’s online inventory management system since 2001 to control its 48,000 volumes (23,000 titles), the first store to do so.
Even though the Book Stall is located in Winnetka, Ill., a storybook village with 12,234 residents and a median household income of $236,222, its customer base radiates outward, through seven other affluent North Shore communities with a grand total of 175,000 residents, and south to Chicago’s skyscrapers 16 miles away. The bookstore’s gross revenues reflect its solid and well-heeled customer base: after dipping 15% in 2008–2009, revenues have popped back up to 2007 levels: $2.4 million in 2011 and are projected to hit $2.7 million in 2012. Children’s book sales, a growing category, account for about 30% of total book sales; 14% of adult book sales are hardcover fiction; and 15% of all sales are sidelines.
Reflecting the wide geographic area from which Book Stall attracts customers, Terry Dason, of the local Chamber of Commerce, relates how she once called out inside the store, asking browsers to raise their hands if they lived in Winnetka. “No one did,” Dason tells PW. “They came from all over. She brings so many people here.”
The Book Stall also takes books out into the community. While Chicago boasts some renowned bookstores that have been around for decades—Powell’s, 57th Street, Seminary Co-op, Unabridged, Women & Children First—it’s the Book Stall, not the urban bookstores, scheduling authors and selling books at the city’s poshest private social clubs, including the Union League, Standard, University, and Women’s Athletic. The Book Stall also is the exclusive vendor at events held at the Chicago Public Library and Pritzker Military Library. Beginning in June, it will sell books at the Museum of Broadcast Communications. And it’s one of “two or three” bookseller vendors at the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Book Fair and the Chicago Humanities Festival.
“She does such a good job with those offsite events,” explains Javier Ramirez, who worked at most of Chicago’s independents before the Book Stall hired him six months ago. “It’s all about trust, building relationships and maintaining them. She runs a pretty tight ship. And she knows everybody.”
Besides maintaining a full schedule of events at various venues around the region, including 10–12 book fairs annually and authors-in-classrooms programs in over 40 area schools, the Book Stall hosts about 350 in-store events each year. More than half are author appearances featuring both local writers and national names. The Book Stall newsletter notes that Jacqueline Winspear, who visited the store April 2, said she specifically “requested a Winnetka stop on the tour” to promote her latest mystery novel, Elegy for Eddie. The gathering, held at a nearby restaurant, drew 56 persons, who all bought books.
“J.K. Rowling and Jimmy Carter, the first time he came in 1993, brought the largest audiences into the store,” Rubin says, recalling that Rowling’s 1999 appearance moved 1,200 books, Carter 1,800. As she shows off a wall of photos taken during author visits, Rubin adds, “When Alexander McCall Smith and Suzanne Collins came last year, we had lines of people weaving all around the store.”
The reason for the Book Stall’s endurance in Chicagoland’s famously competitive book market (which includes Anderson’s Bookshops 42 miles away in Naperville, PW’s 2011 Bookstore of the Year), explains Joan DeMayo, Random House director of children’s book sales, is that, while the space has expanded twice, and a Caribou Coffee franchise was added to the mix in 1999, “the same attributes Rubin committed to 30 years ago— author events, school outreach, reading groups—are still the store’s values today.” And, says Random House sales rep Laura Baratto, when the Book Stall gets behind a book, they sell “400, 500 copies, even more in hardcover.”
“When a book is big everywhere, that’s impressive, but they do this with books that have not hit so big nationally,” Baratto adds. “They are some of the best hand-sellers in the business.”
Indeed, a fierce commitment to hand-selling is at the core of the store’s mission. Each of the store’s 11 full-time and 11 part-time employees—half of whom have worked at the store for more than 15 years, and two (besides Rubin) since 1982—has an expertise in a specific category or genre, and freely shares that knowledge with one another and with customers. It’s something, explains store manager Jon Grand, “the history guy,” that people have come to expect from the Book Stall. And, Ramirez says, like the sales at offsite venues in the city, it’s all about trust.
“The customers really trust the booksellers here,” Ramirez, the expert on contemporary fiction, says. “There’s no question: we all have a goal of putting the right book into the right hands.”
The store is filled with chatter during PW’s visit: every employee on the sales floor is engaged with customers. Rubin is going over the store’s bestseller display with two women; Grand is behind the cash register, recommending a few titles to the man who just purchased Andrew Nagorski’s Hitlerland. Betsy Balyeat, a former teacher, is in the children’s book area, talking up Jennifer Nielsen’s False Prince to a mother and child.
“My staff doesn’t just stand around,” Rubin insists, relating how Grand recently set himself a goal of hand-selling 300 copies of a backlist title “nobody knows of,” the 2007 WWII account by David Howarth, We Die Alone. To date, the store has sold 320 copies. Other hand-selling favorites reveal a trend toward adult fiction: Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone (604 copies in hardcover, 768 copies in paper); Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses (114 copies in hardcover, 425 copies in paper); Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (461 in hardcover, 1,800 copies in paper).
“Remember, Kite Runner was not a bestseller until it came out in paperback,” Rubin notes. “And The Art of Fielding, which we all loved, was out of print in November and December. We sold 350; we could have sold so many more.” It’s a complaint she and her staff make again and again: books that sell well, but are difficult to keep in stock, due to publisher delays in reprinting.
Although Rubin and the Book Stall are almost synonymous in people’s minds, she has decided it’s time to sell the store. The buyer would be its fifth owner since 1937. A letter has been drafted and is scheduled to run this summer in the store newsletter, which goes out to 5,000 customers.
Even in retirement, Rubin is certain to remain the publishing industry’s Chicagoland godmother. Contemplating the inevitable transition period after selling, she reels off the names of publishing’s top executives and says, “I’d stay on to make contacts. I know a lot of people in New York. I would want someone to be introduced to them.”
PW extends its thanks to the jury for this year’s Bookstore of the Year Award: sales representative John Eklund, PW Rep of the Year 2011; Ruth Liebmann, v-p, director of account marketing at Random House; Elise Cannon, v-p, sales at Publishers Group West; Jeanette Zwart, v-p, sales at HarperCollins Publishers; Donna Spurlock, associate director of marketing at Charlesbridge Publishing; and Jim Naccarato, director, field and special sales at Globe Pequot Press.