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Indie Spotlight: Book Bin, Northbrook, Illinois

This woman-run bookstore in the Chicago suburb has been operating for almost half a century, and it’s as vibrant as when it first opened its doors in 1971.

By: Stephen Lovely

Book BinBook Bin has been nestled in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook, Illinois for 47 years, but it doesn’t look like it’s coming up on it’s half-century anniversary anytime soon. Crisp, clean, and bright, the store still feels as new and vibrant as it did when its original founders came together to start the store in 1971. But if Book Bin sometimes feels ageless, that’s partly because it has always been ahead of its time. Founded by four women at a time when just 4% of businesses were women-owned, Book Bin is the local antidote to faceless e-commerce, as popular now as it was in the days before Kindles and big-box stores.

Of course, it hasn’t all been roses. Book Bin faced a setback early on when, within a year of its founding, three of its owners left to follow their husbands’ jobs out of the state.

But Book Bin survived. The remaining owner, Sue Warner, recruited a woman named Janis Irvine, and together the two kept Book Bin's doors open for decades.

That was no easy task. Book Bin had plenty of competition, and as huge, corporate bookstores began to push local shops out of business, Book Bin relied on its local reputation and intimate vibe to weather the storm. "We spent years and years within one mile of a Crown Books, Barnes & Noble, and Borders," says current owner Alli Mengarelli.

Book Bin outlasted all three. And just as the big-box competition failed to take down the little book store, so has the e-commerce revolution that itself played a role in topping the chain bookshops. In Northbrook, Amazon has nothing on the unassuming strip-mall bookshop with nearly a half-century's worth of history.

It's not just nostalgia. "We have new customers coming into the store all the time," Mengarelli says. She credits an "inspired" staff that loves to serve the shop's loyal customers. Authenticity, no doubt, is a part of the equation too. "We have a Facebook page and an Instagram page," Mengarelli mentions, before conceding that the shop doesn't exactly have a social media strategy. "With all the reading to be done, who has time to post?"

Apparently, there's not much need. The suburban bookshop gets by just fine with its simple website, which includes an enthusiastic message from Mengarelli herself – much of it spent in praise of retired owner Janis Irvine. “All we know about bookselling and customer service is thanks to Janis,” Mengarelli says.

Irving retired in 2015, but the shop remains locally owned and woman-run under Mengarelli. And the ageless Book Bin is still the shop it's always been: a place where readers can, in the words of its new owner, "hit the pause button on this moment." Book Bin's own moment has been a long one, and nobody in Northbrook expects that to change anytime soon.

Every month, we shine a light on a great independent bookstore. If you know of an indie bookstore that deserves our attention, let us know at contact@celadonbooks.com!

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