3. Kane County's 'literary lane'
A book store is a sacred place. It's a relic of a less tech-obsessed time; an edifice of enlightenment; and vendor of one of man's greatest gifts to humanity – the written word. And with book stores becoming more scarce, I deemed it necessary to seek out the remaining mom-and-pop bookshops across Kane County – I'd like to say for posterity, but more likely, for my own self interest.
I've always preferred tangible book-browsing to scrolling through titles and clicking on book covers via the Internet, so I dedicated the better part of a Saturday to taking a "stroll" down Kane County's "literary lane" – a handful of independently-owned bookstores stretching from Aurora to Elgin. (For additional photos, click here.)
Stops included Culture Stock in Aurora, Town House Books in St. Charles, Books at Sunset in Elgin and Elgin Books and Coffee. (I tried to keep chain stores out of this list, which is why I didn't include Barnes and Noble in Geneva. Although, it is equally as important to the survival of the book store.)
My scholarly saunter began with Culture Stock, a brick building nestled on the banks of the Fox River directly across the bridge from the Paramount Theatre. Culture Stock is entirely volunteer-run, and it is a part of the nonprofit organization L.I.F.T., which provides a creative environment for the Aurora community as a means of enhancing said community through art and educational programs. Such programs include poetry readings, M.U.S.I.C. Mondays, book-club discussions, art-therapy classes, Spanish-English language meet ups, drum circles, author chats, children's story time and theater classes.
The programs and events offered at Culture Stock seemingly fall in line with that of a community center, but its shelves also are well-stocked with gently used books at bargain prices ($3 for paperbacks and $5 for hard cover books).
There's a flurry of activity at Culture Stock. While perusing the stacks of books, VHS tapes and vinyl records – and glancing up occasionally to see picturesque views of the river – a sewing circle set up shop in one of the store's living-room style seating arrangements; and children paraded around the room as part of a drama class or were occupied by a game of chess in the corner. After roughly 45 minutes, I was four books richer, $12 poorer and on my way to Town House Books and Cafe for lunch and continued book browsing.
The 25-minute drive from Culture Stock to Town House Books in St. Charles is nearly a straight shot on Route 25. The roadway hugs the river and includes a quick view of Geneva's historic Fabyan Windmill along the way.
The independently-owned Town House Books, which opened in 1974, is located in Century Corners – a group of shops set in Victorian homes situated along tree-lined streets on the east bank of the Fox River. Expect to pay full price for books at Town House, but also expect a healthy selection of new releases, best sellers and – of course – the classics.
Town House boasts a bevy of brand new books shelved, stacked and displayed charmingly in various chandelier-laden rooms fit with oriental rugs. Its knowledgeable staff is extremely helpful. I handed a list of six rather obscure titles to an employee, who proceeded – not only – to deliver what they had IN stock, but also offered to order the out-of-stock items. She also presented alternate titles written by the same author. I spent more money there than I did at the other three bookstores combined, but it was well worth it. It's near impossible to leave such a charming slice of St. Charles empty-handed.
Town House also has a one-room gift shop and indoor-outdoor cafe that serves creative sandwiches, soups and salads, as well as beer and wine. Portraits of writers adorn the walls inside the cafe, while the cutesy, cobbled outdoor patio is perfect for dining al fresco on a fall day. They also host book signings and launch parties for best-selling and local authors alike. (Visit www.townhousebooks.com for upcoming events.)
Fifteen minutes after leaving Town House, I arrived at Books at Sunset in Elgin. The used book shop opened 14 years ago and is owned by the wonderfully eccentric and lovely Judi Brownfield, a lover of books and major proponent of all things Elgin. If there is anything you want to know about Elgin, ask Judi.
She calls her store, which is situated in a strip mall on the outskirts of downtown Elgin, "The 'Cheers' of 21st century book shops," because of the relationships she has formed with her customers over the years.
When I arrived, books bursted from every possible nook and cranny, and the store was in the middle of undergoing a massive organizational overhaul. Not the best time to make an inaugural visit, but Judi's good cheer, optimism and passion for life in general, made it quite easy to overlook the momentary upheaval. Sunset also has a share-and-save credit option, where patrons can exchange their own books for points toward future purchases at the store.
I walked out of Sunset with a copy of "The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain" for $2.95.
Traveling five minutes down South Street into downtown Elgin, I couldn't wait for a caffeine-fix at Elgin Books and Coffee after a long day on literary lane. Elgin Books has been around since 2005, but only recently moved from its former Elgin location to its current downtown address right along the river. The space is well organized and divided into multiple rooms dedicated to various genres. Cutesy cafe-style seating near the front window is perfect for sipping a cappuccino or vanilla latte (made on site) while reading one of more than 50,000 titles Elgin Books has in stock, according to its website. Unlike some used book stores, Elgin Books keeps a digital record of all of its stock on a computer, making the myriad shelves easier to manuever. Using the store's digital catalog, I found a used copy of the adventure/travel memoir "The Walk West: A Walk Across America 2" by Peter Jenkins – a title that I had been unable to find before visiting Elgin Books and Coffee.
After five hours of book browsing at four stores, I concluded my journey along Kane County's "literary lane" with a total of 11 books in tow. The journey proved a success, and left me with an enduring respect for book-store advocates who continue to tough it out – and find success – in a digital era.
• Kara Silva is a writer, photographer and the features editor for the Kane County Chronicle. She tackles coverage of the arts, entertainment and dining scene. As a two-year Kane County resident, she is exploring the place she calls home, one bucket-list conquest at a time.