Rachel Weaver and her husband Jason Smith said that instead of having a baby, they had a bookstore.
The couple opened The Book Table together in 2003 and have worked since to expand and manage the location in Oak Park over the past 16 years.
The store, located at 1045 Lake St. in Oak Park, has gone through many changes since 2003, including two substantial remodelings. It started out in a 2,800-square-foot space adjacent to the current space and then later moved next door to double in size. In 2018, the couple raised funds to combine the spaces and remodeled once more to be the space customers see currently.
Weaver shares the story of The Book Table — from idea to reality and everything in between:
Opening a bookstore takes 24/7 of your time. It’s very demanding. When my husband Jason and I started the store, we knew we wanted real retail hours, because it drives us crazy when stores treat it as a hobby and are only open when everyone else is at work. So, when we started, we worked all of the hours ourselves. For probably the first year, we worked all day, and then hired someone part-time so that we could get some time off—not together, of course—but so each of us could take a few hours off during the week. It was a tag team effort. We still haven’t gotten ourselves a schedule where we have days off together.
I hate to talk about the loss of another bookstore being the “boom” for us, but the Borders chain closing was one of the first steps that enabled us to expand and grow to the point where we could hire enough staff to take real days off.
I did the long college plan that was ever-so-popular among Gen X’ers where I went full-time for a year, took a lot of time off and then went back as part-time with a full-time job. It took me from 1993 to 2000 to actually get my undergraduate degree. And what I was doing during that time was working as a bookseller. Near the end of my college years, I met my husband working in a bookstore, and he had the idea of the model of a bookstore that we have here, which is sort of modeled after The Strand in New York or Powell’s in Oregon. Both have that mix of bargain, used, new and rare, which we have here. There wasn’t really a store doing that in the Chicago area. So, when I was finishing my English degree and saw that the next logical step for me was getting another degree and getting a job teaching in some town that I probably didn’t want to live in, I began to rethink that whole thing. I love the industry and it had become an important part of who I was, and Jason was starting to think about going off on his own and starting his own store, so I began to think “why don’t we both just do this?”
From when I quit my job and when we signed a lease to actually starting the knitty-gritty work to get the store open, it was about four months.
We met working together. We were good working together then and still are now. We each have our strengths and weaknesses, but I think we balance each other out both as a couple and as business partners.
Sometimes it’s hard to keep the personal separate from The Book Table. But it’s also like when you go out dinner without the kids, you still talk about the kids, because they’re central to your life. And even if you don’t work together, you still spend part of your evening sharing stories about your day. I think that our work conversation outside of the store is less of a staff meeting as much as it is what couples do after the workday.
Working all the hours wasn’t as bad as it sounds. I was working side-by-side with my husband, and we enjoy what we do. But it is long retail hours, and you can’t always depend on everyone to be nice, so there is that aspect to it. I will say that we chose well with Oak Park—it’s a great community. In general, the people are pretty awesome, but I think that you’re always going to have the handful of crazies.
At some point you just have to open. You’re never really ready, but you have to let people in, try to make some money and go from there. I’ve seen this happen so many times with other bookstores since we did it, but when you open a brand-new, independent bookstore, you manage to get just enough stock on the shelves to fill the spaces, and then all of a sudden people come in, they want to buy stuff, and your shelves are empty. That was basically what happened to us. People had been waiting for us to open, so when we finally opened our doors, we sold so much and were doing so much better than we had projected, which was a blessing and a curse. After our first day, we just looked around at all the empty spots on our shelves and had so much work to do to get more books. That first week was so much, not only being open 12 hours a day but also racing to get more books out on the shelves and to understand how much we needed to keep in stock to have things for people to buy. It’s not a very good look for a bookstore if you don’t have things for people to buy.
The store has definitely become more independent. We are trying to shift the way we operate and be more involved in the day-to-day.
I don’t think of the last 16 years as different periods, but I like the way things are going now. After our last expansion, I feel like we will never need to or want to expand again. This really feels like the size the store was meant to be and we now have the space to work with to be the best store we can be.
This interview has been edited for clarity.