Sara Hoerdeman, the American Academy of Pediatrics marketing manager for consumer products, didn’t just nominate Harvey’s Tales in Geneva, Ill., to be PW’s 2023 Bookstore of the Year: she wrote a 500-word love letter extolling the virtues of the five-year-old indie, located in an upscale suburb northwest of Chicago.
“In my mind, it is perfect,” Hoerdeman wrote. “Harvey’s Tales is in a lovely Victorian house in the high foot traffic downtown retail district. They have beautifully used the space, merchandising all of those secret corners and closets that make this kind of bookshop so charming. The selection of titles and sidelines is beautifully curated. The staff and owners are extremely friendly. From my perspective, as an industry professional and an independent bookstore fanatic, it’s simply one of the best. It has character, heart, and quirk rarely seen outside of the big city indies.”
Co-owners Roxanne and Chuck Osborne—who named the shop after their late Bernese mountain dog—opened their bookstore on their 35th wedding anniversary in 2018 to fulfill their “retirement dream.” Roxanne, who’d retired from a real estate career that took her to New York City on a weekly basis, recalls that she and Chuck, a science teacher, “were looking for something to do, and opening a bookstore was perfect.” She adds, “We’ve always been big fans of indie bookstores.”
“We wanted to do something we both enjoyed,” Chuck says. “Every time we’d travel, we would seek out the local indies.”
From the beginning, Harvey’s Tales was a family endeavor. The couple bought a building around the corner from the main street in what Chuck describes as Geneva’s “historic downtown shopping area.” Their son, who has an MA in architecture, designed and decorated the two-story retail space in a building that was built as a residence in the early 1860s and transformed more than a century later into a commercial property with an elevator. “We had a lot of fun, working together on it as a family,” Roxanne says, noting that her son designed the cash register to look like a card catalog.
Today, a 2,400-sq.-ft. retail area, featuring 20,000 titles for adults and children, and a coffee shop fill the ground floor and second story. The basement is used for storage, office space, and the store’s limited programming, which usually involves local authors.
“We’re not far from Anderson’s in Naperville,” Roxanne notes. “They have a lot more space to put on author events, so we focus on other things to draw people in, like customer service.” The Osbornes want their employees to be well-read and prepared to handsell books, of course, “but one thing that’s just as important to us,” Roxanne says, “is that our team have smiles on their faces and that they’re friendly to all who come in. We want this to be a welcoming place in which to shop.”
That emphasis on inclusiveness extends to the store’s inventory. Chuck, the store’s buyer, says the store stocks relatively few books on politics and current events because “they’re controversial”; he’d rather avoid “skirmishes” and “keep the focus on books.” That said, the Osbornes aren’t shy about making their views known regarding challenged works. The shop’s “banned books room” showcases some 90 titles that have been challenged or banned, all shelved face-out. A shelf talker pinned below each title explains why it was challenged or banned and in which state or other locality; the Osbornes and their eight part-time employees write these with information gleaned from the American Library Association’s website or elsewhere online. Chuck points out that Bibles are among the books displayed in the room, shelved next to The Anarchist Cookbook.
Not only has the banned books room elicited thoughtful conversations with customers, Chuck says, but also, “when Tennessee bans another book, sales of the books in our banned books room go crazy.”
Roxanne says that many of their customers are surprised to learn that books they’ve read have been banned in other states. “Our shelf talkers help people see how ridiculous these bans or challenges are, like how Charlotte’s Web was banned because of the ‘satanic’ pig.”
Since Harvey’s Tales opened, business has been generally good, even given the disruption caused by Covid-19. “There was a dip during the pandemic, but sales slowly came back, though not as strong as we’d hoped,” Roxanne says. After a slight increase in 2021, sales in 2022 were flat, but the first quarter of 2023 was a “pleasant surprise. We saw more traffic, more spending. I’m optimistic that we’ll have a good year.”