Book stores are fighting for survival in the digital age. National chains and independent owners are dealing with the growing presence of e-readers. But in DeKalb, the community’s only remaining used book store appears isolated from the ups and downs within the industry. This tiny outlet operates more as a public service than an actual business.
When you walk through the front door of Classic Books, don’t expect to find a counter selling coffee. Don’t expect that comfy reading chair at the end of a long aisle.
In fact, when you walk through the front door of this store, be prepared to watch your step. You’re immediately surrounded by shelves and stacks of used books. Everything from science fiction to military aircraft – they fill up an old garage big enough for just a couple of vehicles. The brick structure, which is draped in ivy, is tucked away in a parking lot behind a downtown DeKalb office building.
The proprietor of Classic Books is Charles Sigwart, who has a funny way of summarizing the operation.
“This is sort of a voluntary non-profit. We make about enough revenue in a year to pay for all the miscellaneous expenses. If I wasn’t willing to do this as a retirement hobby, it wouldn’t be here” Sigwart said.
Sigwart is a retired NIU professor and self-proclaimed book enthusiast. He opened the store in 2005 after his personal collection became too much to handle. Sigwart’s wife Gretchen says it evolved from there.
“So he started selling books out of our garage and had fun doing it. The building he’s in now belongs to our next door neighbor, and I don’t know whether he did that to get rid of the perpetual garage sale in the neighborhood, or because he wanted to rent the place, but it’s worked out very well” Sigwart said.
Gretchen Sigwart serves as treasurer of Classic Books, but doesn’t spend much time working there. She says she simply enjoys being able to add to her personal collection.
“I have a bookcase full of about 100 books right now waiting for me to read them. I don’t spend much time in book stores other than his” Gretchen Sigwart said.
Charles Sigwart says a slight majority of his stock is the result of donations. He also spends a lot of time rummaging through estate sales. While there are items on the shelves that can be called obscure, Sigwart is reluctant to use the word “rare” when describing the inventory.
“Usually when people say rare books, they’re talking about something that is expensive. There are very few things in here that can be called expensive” Sigwart said.
Most of the books here sell for around $3 dollars. And while he’s not in to make a profit, Sigwart says there’s something to be gained from watching a customer discover something someone else decided wasn’t valuable enough to keep.
“Like many personal libraries, there’s some sections that are highly organized, and there are others where it’s just a shelf and it’s random. So, serendipity is a big factor in people’s liking it” Sigwart said.
So, where does this drive to maintain the flow of used books come from? Sigwart says he simply hates to throw them away. The ones that don’t sell often go back into the donation cycle. Sigwart has given them to many charitable organizations over the years, including DeKalb’s Hope Haven shelter. Executive Director Leslie Wicks says Classic Books has been a big help.
“He’s kept our book shelves full over the years. And if I ever have a need I know where I can call” Wicks said.
As for the future of Classic Books, Sigwart says he feels he can do this for at least another decade. He jokes that maybe one day his daughter, another avid reader in the family, can take over an keep on recycling knowledge in DeKalb.