While Chicagoland's stores dominate the Illinois bookselling scene, several independents have opened in recent years outside the metro area, despite stiff competition from mass merchandise stores. Of the 27 Illinois members of the Great Lakes Booksellers Association, 10 are bookstores that have opened within the past three years. Five of those are located more than 50 miles away from Chicago.

Some of these bookstores—such as nine-month-old I Know You Like a Book in Peoria Heights, and two-year-old Rosetta Stone Bookstore in Carbondale, which changed ownership and revised its strategy three months ago—are striving to be not simply a business but a community gathering place.

According to Mary Beth Nebel, I Know You Like a Book's owner, Peoria already had a B&N and a Borders as well as Kroger, Wal-Mart and Sam's Club, but Nebel still believed she could find a niche. "People are tired of sterile big box stores," Nebel said. "They're turning back to hands-on book buying. They want to know what they're getting."

Nebel makes a point of learning each of her patrons' reading preferences, to more effectively hand-sell books. She also encourages her patrons to actively recommend books to one another by posting their favorite authors and books on a large chalkboard inside the 750-sq.-ft. store. If a title listed on the blackboard is in print and not already in stock, Nebel orders it for the store.

This emphasis on interaction between the store and its customers, as well as between the customers themselves, has already created a sense of community at the store. To give the store a little edge, Nebel said that customers have been donating their used books to I Know You Like a Book for resale.

For her part, Jessica Bradshaw, Rosetta Stone's new owner, is just as committed as Nebel in defining her 900-sq.-ft. store as a community space. Besides stocking books that the local B&N wouldn't necessarily carry, such as Book Sense bestsellers, small press titles and art books, Bradshaw actively promotes Rosetta Stone as a meeting place for writers' groups and book clubs, and sells work by local writers and artists on consignment.

"We even do art displays. Right now, our art display is a benefit for the local animal shelter. A lot of people come in just for the art and return for books," she said.