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Steinberg: Who buys a bookstore?

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On her 16th birthday, a high school junior named Allison Brown walked into the Book Bin and got a job as a clerk. Eventually she rose to store manager and now, 39, she became the Northbrook store’s owner.

That caught my attention. I’ve been a loyal Book Bin customer for 15 years, since moving to the leafy suburban paradise. I had to know: what kind of person buys a bookstore nowadays?

The same kind, it turns out, who walked in 23 years ago to get a job at one. She was not particularly bookish.

“I was sporty,” said Alli, now married and going by Allison Mengarelli, as we had a cup of tea in the comfortable chairs at the front of the cozy store, with its fireplace and model train circling above the children’s section. “I played soccer year-round. It wasn’t that I was money-oriented.”

If it wasn’t the books and wasn’t the money, what was the allure?

“I just loved how I felt when I walked into the bookstore, ” she said. “For me, [I thought] ‘I want to feel that more, so I’ll get a job there.’ I think I was responsibility-oriented. I had a weekly baby-sitting gig from when I was 11 to when I was 18. I rarely missed a Saturday when I wasn’t baby-sitting for this family. I wanted them to count on me.”


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The Book Bin was founded in 1971 and owned for decades by Janis Irvine and her husband, Lex. Why buy the place from them?

“I started working here so long ago that I can’t really imagine my life without the Book Bin,” she said. “And I think a lot of our customers feel the same way. Northbrook wants the Book Bin, and I do too. I think it’s a great little slice of Americana.”

In today’s America you can buy books cheaply online. Yet people come here. The place is almost a cultural center.

“I’d like it to become more of that,” she said. “The days of browsing seem to be past. I think it’s important that we give ourselves time just to look around. ”

But most customers don’t; they come in on a mission, grab what they’re looking for and leave.

“We’re task oriented. We have something in mind, we do it and we leave. And we need more time to discover,” she said. “Browsing is discovering what speaks to you, what draws you in. Maybe just finding that book with the great title that you want to read even though you didn’t know you wanted to.”

After high school, she went to North Park University, where she inaugurated the school’s first women’s soccer team.

“I liked being part of a team,” she said. “I don’t think you can replace that feeling with anything else.”

She moved to Georgia after college to work in book distributing, but Irvine lured her back to Northbrook to manage the Book Bin, where there always seems to be four or five staffers on duty. Part of the team thing?

“Maybe,” she laughs.

Does the store make money?

“No,” Mengarelli said. “I hope to make money for it, but up to this point, it’s more a breaking even business than a money-making business. More of a labor of love.”

What do you love about it?

“I like to bring the country’s creativity and the world’s creativity to readers. I’m not here because of what I have to say. I’m here because of what all these authors have to say.”

We talked about popular authors, but somehow ended up talking about coloring books. Eight of the top 20 Amazon best-sellers are adult coloring books. Is that really a trend?

“The verdict is still out,” she said. “People enjoy it. I don’t know if it’s for everybody.”

Who’s it for?

“So far, mostly gifts,” she said. “When you do grant yourself the time to veg out and put color on page, you tend to like it.”

I couldn’t imagine that; “Maybe coloring is like doing jigsaw puzzles,” I ventured.

As if on cue, Clare Poupard hurried into the store on an errand. A gift for a sick friend. A coloring book, of course. Mengarelli guided her to the front rack.

“I need a soothing one, for a friend who’s healing” said Poupard, a regular customer.

Mengarelli showed her a variety of thin volumes, finally offering Good Vibes Coloring Book by Thaneeya McArdle.

“‘Good Vibes.’ I like it. Sold,” said Poupard. “I will give her good vibes. Thank you.”

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