Who: Book Mouse
What: Independent book store
Where: 722 LaSalle Street, Ottawa, IL (815) 433-7323
Book Mouse is an adorable independent book store in downtown Ottawa, Illinois, the “land of two rivers,” where the Fox River meets the Illinois River. Book Mouse is celebrating its 21st birthday this Halloween, so it’ll be old enough to drink.
A circuitous route led me there. Last summer I met a new manfriend from the Illinois Valley region, 60 miles from DeKalb. Turning the commute into fun road trips was my new hobby and the impetus for this blog.
This is why downtown Ottawa was my choice of locale one day for a coffee shop to hunker down and be productive in. I spotted Book Mouse across the street and decided to investigate. I was drawn to its cute sign and display window chockfull of upcoming event announcements. My mom’s birthday was coming up, so I stopped in and got her the latest from one of her favorite authors (A Sudden Light by Garth Stein), chatted with the employees and snapped a few pics.
I had a brief phone chat with the owner, Eileen Fesco. She’s owned the store for the past eight and a half years. The next big event she’s looking forward to is nearly 600 trick or treaters heading through the downtown area, an event she started around 2006.
“We do quite a few community events,” she said. “I just got back from doing two read-alouds at two Head Start programs. We do school book fairs, also. We go to the schools and set up on all these tables hundreds of books for them to shop.” Other events for shoppers include Toddler Time storytelling and a monthly Poetry and Pizza night (“We provide the pizza, they provide the poetry”). “We’ll do author dinners at a local restaurant. Buy a ticket and you’ll get a book, a dinner, and an author chat.” These are held at Hank’s. “They have a wonderful ambience. They have a nice side room that’s big enough and quiet enough to have an author talk.” You can find a list of their upcoming events here.
Some bookstores offer e-book purchases. Fesco said they tried this for about six years before deciding it just wasn’t profitable. “It was costing us a couple thousand dollars a year to offer the service and we made like $150.00 on it for the whole year. We decided to go back to the basics. We’re your full service book store with knowledgeable book sellers, and we will order any book you want. I’d say special orders account for about 30 percent of our business. We typically get the orders in the next day, and you don’t have to pay any shipping.”
When I asked Fesco what accounted for her store’s longevity, she said, “This is just a reading area. People are big advocates of reading. That’s, I think, the big reason that we are still around, because lots and lots of stores have closed. Also the high level of teen reading, and I attribute that to the teens I have working in the store. Usually I find my employees [because they’re patrons] just hanging out in the store reading books.”
I missed them on my visit, but apparently Book Mouse has a resident cat named Sonny as well as some degus, which are like a smaller cousin to the chinchilla. “We always have some critters in here. It’s like a kid magnet. They’ll be going by the store and say, ‘Can we see Sonny the kitty?’”
Like most Illinois Valley towns, Fesco cites the scenery as a big draw to the area. “We’re close to Starved Rock. That’s the main reason that people visit the area. It’s on the way to and back from Starved Rock between Chicago and here. We’re one of the biggest downtowns and we have lots of restaurants. Lots of hotel rooms. Unless you’re staying right at Starved Rock, this is the place to stay inexpensively, and they have pools.” Ottawa is also home to the first Lincoln-Douglas debate.
“Before I bought the store,” Fesco said, “I interviewed a lot of book stores in the area and in Wisconsin, and that’s one thing they said—‘Make yourself valuable to the community.’ So we make sure that we participate in community events any way we can, donate to charities, help the schools—basically, we make ourselves valuable to the community. We have a very welcoming store, it smells nice, with pretty music and animals and knowledgeable booksellers. If you walk into Walmart, you’re lucky even trying to find someone who knows where the book section is. Here, if we don’t have it, we will find it for you, and we will get it for you quick. It’s customer service, nice ambience, and making yourselves valuable to the community.”