Book Lover’s Emporium
By Lois Barrett
When one has shaken hands with a world-famous actress in Chicago at a cook book signing, ridden a commuter bus with a famous author, and can claim to have sold more books in their store written by Janet Evanovich “than any other author, ever,” Harrisburg might be considered an unlikely spot in which to open a book store.
However, Josie Brooks, who moved to Harrisburg eleven years ago, did just that after careful consideration, bringing fifteen thousand books with her from a buyout in Robinson.
“We looked around in Marion but rent was too high and the town is too spread out, not a bit homey,” she said. “We saw this empty building in Parker Plaza, came over a couple of times and decided to give it a try. We rented it and through a friend I worked for in Paris, I was able to buy Becky’s Books in Robinson and move it here. What a chore for two people, moving in excess of 15,000 books in under twenty-four hours!”
Customers come from as far away as Sturgis, Kentucky; Elgin, Illinois; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Cave-In-Rock, Brooks said. One in particular stops in once a year from Mississippi.
Out of the customers who frequent The Book Emporium, one in particular is satisfied with what he calls “one of a kind” personal service offered. Herrin’s Frank Deutsch, reader and writer, said it is one of only two book stores he knows where the owner actually “reads the things coming out, and makes an effort to stock what we want to read.”
As to why this Illinois resident who drives from Williamson to Saline County to buy books, the answer is simple: the owner of The Book Emporium at Parker Plaza in Harrisburg “is someone who really cares,” Deutsch said. “She stocks selections not limited to the top twenty best sellers and coffee table bargain books. Her prices are reasonable and the service is great.”
Deutsch told of an instance where Brooks did him a personal service “not everyone would do. I left money under the door when she wasn’t open and she mailed a book to my mother. Not everyone would to that.” He added “I can actually have an intelligent discussion about books I might want to read or have read. Josie recommended all my books so I have none left.”
“I’ve always been an avid book reader,” Brooks said. “It comes from my mother, I guess. She’s still reading at seventy-nine.’
At the present time, Brooks is looking forward to November’s annual Open House for Book Lover’s Day. This is just one of the times she would invite local writers in, for customers to attend a “book” signing, a meet-the-author time. “It is basically open house and there are always free books given away, and drawings. This year I’m going to try to have an author signing. I’ve met many authors at conventions and have their pictures posted inside the door for customers to see. We have a good turnout for that.”
Her favorite story is about riding the commuter bus and looking over, mouth agape, to see author Susan Elizabeth Phillips. “She’s a gracious lady. My biggest moment was getting to shake hands with actress Sophia Loren in Chicago. She was signing her cook book.”
When asked what books are favorite customer purchases, she said “Romance makes the world go round, as they say. Romance takes up thirty-five point eight per cent of my sales. These are followed by mysteries and thrillers. My biggest seller is Janet Evanovich who writes about Stephanie Plum, Bounty Hunter. It’s a comedy-mystery type book, and is real light reading.”
“I have many irons in the fire,” Brooks said, “as small business is just that: small. I sell a little on eBay, have an inventory of about 1700 on Alibris, cousin to Amazon, bid for people on eBay that are computer-less, have some glassware in the store for people to look at, besides raising a granddaughter that just turned eighteen. There’s not many hours left in a day for me.”
The shelves hold about thirty thousand selections to choose from, which are mostly used books. “My sign states I am the largest trading bookstore in Southern Illinois. My inventory includes the usual, romance westerns, sci-fi/fantasy, novels, true crime, children’s in paper back. My hardback section contains history such as presidential, famous people, etc., self-help, religion, which I sell a lot of, literature, classics, gardening, art, music, animals and on and on. I have a good selection of modern firsts also. I have just added a small section of Eastern religions and a paranormal section. I have something for everyone.” Also, there is an ample supply of DVDs and VHS movies, all used.
Brooks said that with the college, SIC, being here in Harrisburg, she sells a lot of classics and poetry. “I have a nice hardback section of horror – Stephen King rules here – and one of sci-fi/ fantasy.”
“The section I like best and work the hardest to find items for is the local history section. You know Charlie Birger worked and lived out of this town. I still sell many, many of Gary DeNeal’s Knight of Another Sort. We have a couple of ladies in town, Becky Schmook and Mary Brimm, that do genealogy books and they bring them to me first thing.”
Brooks’ search for local history books is hard she said “because maybe only five hundred to one thousand were printed back in the Forties or earlier and people are looking for them. The search for knowledge just goes on and on. We also have book collectors of one sort or other that once they buy, they don’t bring them back. Everyone collects something, I’ve found.”
Brooks said if the public thinks all books in the store are trade-ins, “boy, are they wrong. I spend much of my days off combing thrift stores, auctions, yard sales and various other places in towns far away, anything to make a customer happy.”
She also special orders new books with a ten percent discount that are being published and “I do book searches for old books that are out of print. It might bring me a sale or two. I also have some D&D dice for the game players.
Brooks tried other avenues as a career before attempting to own her own book store. She worked for the Zenith Corp. two different times; veterinary assistant off and on for twelve years; tried beauty school at age forty, and “what a mistake that was,” she said. “I don’t like to do hair.”
“In 1986 we took a vacation out west and decided we wanted to live there. We went back to Paris and worked for five years remodeling houses until we had the money to go. In the meantime, I saw an ad in the paper for part-time help at the local book store. I applied and got hired. I went home the first day and told my husband that was what I was going to do when we moved to Arizona: own my own book store. I started collecting my inventory then.”
Five years later Brooks moved to Safford, Arizona and opened the first trading book store, ACME BOOKS, and it is still there, she said, although they have since changed the name. They stayed only one and a half years, sold the store and their home and came to Southern Illinois “where the hunting and fishing are good,” she said with emphasis.
“We’ve been here eleven years this month. I met so many nice and interesting people, including the author of this piece. I found my helper, Shirley Thomas, within the first couple of months. She was recommended by another customer and has been my helper since. She’s a bit older than me but I told her she couldn’t retire until I do.”
Brooks is also grateful for a volunteer helper, Ronita Murrie, who comes in on Thursdays and sorts books. “I’d hate to leave her out. She started about two months ago and volunteered because she loves books. She just picks a section and alphabetizes and sorts. In return, she takes home whatever she wants to read and returns them the next week. She has made so much of a difference in the looks of the store. Thanks, Ronita.”
If book lovers are seeking that special book, just want to browse, discuss authors, or whatever, The Book Emporium store hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, located behind Hardee’s in Harrisburg.