The Stars Our Destination, in Chicago, revives out-of-print titles by publishing them.

For Alice Bentley, space is not the final frontier. Publishing is.Bentley, the owner of Chicago's The Stars Our Destination bookstore on the city's north side, has watched business in her 3000-sq.-ft. science-fiction store steadily grow over the past decade. The popular independent shop, situated within earshot of Chicago's elevated train, is located at 1021 W. Belmont Avenue. Over the years, Bentley has seen her share of challenges -- the coming of the chains, the arrival of Internet bookselling and a recent turnover of longtime staff members she calls "the most important part of a successful independent store." However, 1998, the shop's 10-year anniversary, was the best year ever for The Stars Our Destination. Yet Bentley has recently taken on a whole new challenge -- the publication of a book.

A longtime fan of fantasy writer Barry Hughart, Bentley recently published a compendium of three Hughart classics, two of which had long been out of print. The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, published under the imprint The Stars Our Destination Books, has truly been a labor of love. One she d sn't plan on enduring again any time soon.

"I compare it to giving birth," said Bentley, a mother of a six-year-old son. "But Barry Hughart's work is something I loved since I opened my store, so the effort was well worth it." Still, Bentley insisted that she has no plans to publish more material, deciding she likes the bookselling side of the business a whole lot more. "It's a lot more fun," she explained.

According to Bentley, over the years Hughart's book Bridge of Birds (Ballantine), previously the only title still in print by the Tucson (Ariz.) -- based author, was a customer favorite. "For all the time that the store has been open," Bentley noted, "we've had a satisfaction guarantee on the book. I've promised everyone who's ever purchased it that they will like it or they can bring it back for a full refund, no questions asked." No one has ever taken Bentley up on her offer.

"It's simply a wonderful book," she said. "Especially in science fiction, it's very important to know who likes what kind of book. You need to know the individual tastes of your customers. Bridge of Birds just has an appeal that branches all of that. It has something for everyone."

Eleanor Lang, senior publicist at Del Rey Books, an imprint of Ballantine, agreed. "It's really one of the loveliest books we've ever published." And she is equally enthusiastic about singing the praises of Bentley: "Alice is a terrific bookseller, and the way she handsells Bridge of Birds is truly astonishing. Several times the book has gone out of stock prior to a reprint, and Alice has bought hundreds of copies and has handsold them all."

As more and more customers purchased Bridge of Birds, Bentley ran into a problem. "People wanted to read more by Barry Hughart, and they couldn't. His other books were out of print. That's when I decided to see if I could acquire the rights and publish them myself."

Eventually, after much red tape and legal wrangling, Bentley picked up Bridge of Birds as well as Hughart's The Story and the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen.

Signing on Seattle-based artist Kaja Foglio, a favorite for her work in the game Magic: The Gathering, was the next step. "Her style just fit perfectly with the compendium," explained Bentley.

Today, inside the Star's Our Destination, the fruit of Bentley's hard work is stacked in cardboard boxes against the shop's east wall. Bentley printed 500 limited hardcover editions of The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, each signed by Hughart and Foglio. The 652-page hardcover edition sells for $45, and the trade paperback is priced at $19.95. But don't accuse Alice Bentley of marketing a collectible.

"I never like to tell people to buy a book because it will be a collector's item. That's not why I buy books," Bentley told PW. "I buy things because I'm a fan, not a collector. I think giving in to the collectibles market can ruin a store."

Still, with only 500 hardcover copies of The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, Bentley admitted the book will immediately go up in value. Already, only six weeks after publication, half of her supply is gone. The initial print run on the trade paperback was 1000 copies, with rights to reprint ad infinitum.

Despite all this attention focused on the new book, Bentley's decade-old bookselling operation is still her number-one priority. In the last year and a half, her business has doubled, thanks to a growing mail-order operation as well as a score of high-profile author signings. Last spring, a line of nearly 300 people stretched down Belmont Avenue for a visit by Ray Bradbury, who autographed for three hand-cramping hours.

According to Bentley, although a larger throng showed up for an earlier signing by Sandman creator Neil Gaiman, twice as many books sold during the Bradbury appearance. In all, it's been a big year on the author-signing front at The Stars Our Destination.

Although it hasn't cut into her business, the bookstore owner admitted that competition in recent years from superstores has kept her on her t s. The shop, which houses more than 6000 new titles and at least 24,000 used titles, is a science-fiction fan's fantasy come true. Bentley explained that being a genre store is key to her success. "To put it frankly," she said, "if any of those chains decided to target science fiction the way they have targeted, for instance, children's books, I would be in big trouble."

Bentley attributes the strength of her starship operation to her employees' depth of knowledge. They know science fiction. Of the nearby Barnes &Noble and Borders stores, Bentley said, "Dinosaurs have big teeth. Live with it. But no matter how big the dinosaurs are," she added, "there are plenty of small, fast mammals running around below them." Bentley believes independents will always have a place in the bookselling community because "there will always be somebody with $10,000 in their pocket, stupid enough to open yet another bookstore."

And for Alice Bentley, store owner-turned-publisher, she is attempting to go where no one has gone before.

Bookends Celebrates 25th Anniversary
Bookends Bookstore, at 1014 Coombs St. in Napa Valley, Calif., celebrated its 25th anniversary late last year as the largest and oldest bookstore in the valley.

The secret to the store's success, according to owner Jerry Dougherty, who bought the two-story, 3800-sq.-ft. store in November 1996, is making it a center for the community. Dougherty's plan was twofold: to bring a wider audience into the store itself and to bring the store's services out to the broader community.

To achieve the first goal, Dougherty instituted a weekly p try reading series for local writers and created a gallery within the store for Napa Valley photographers. He also added a Music Corner with more than 1000 CD titles and put in a popular sitting area where customers can snuggle in for a good read or listen to authors at the store's special events. He has also expanded the inventory from 23,000 to 30,000 titles.

The second goal was reached by Dougherty expanding on the store's already well-established community outreach program. In addition to advertising the readings and exhibits in its newsletter, the staff makes calls to the local schools to encourage student attendance.

As part of a long-standing policy, Bookends donates nonreturnable books to the valley's Veterans Home. Store manager Barbara Heppe, who has been at Bookends for 18 years, also noted that when the Napa Library, or the Queen of the Valley Hospital, has readings, the store delivers the books and has a staff member attend the events.

The bookstore carries more than 1000 magazine titles -- "Certainly the most in the valley," according to Heppe -- as well an extensive selection of local and foreign maps. This helps the store cater to its large base of old-time customers. A strong element of the outreach program involves coordinating with the dozen or so local book clubs in a Frequent Buyer Book Club membership, which allows club readers to plan and order advance reading lists with a guaranteed 15% discount. Dougherty plans to include favorite writers chosen from book club members in the store's reading series. For general customers, the store offers a 10% discount coupon usable after the purchase of 10 books.

Though four other bookstores are within a five-block area, Heppe told PW, "The other stores are not a problem. We'll special order, we'll find the books ourselves, we'll do everything we can." A practicing lawyer for 28 years before going into the book business, Dougherty explained that it was the social and cultural connections in bookselling that he was looking for -- and has found-in the store's continuation. "Most of my customers," he added, "are now also friends."

--John High