Janis Irvine

Janis Irvine owned the popular local bookstore, The Book Bin, from 1972 to 2015. In this interview she talks about the joy the bookstore brought her and how she and her family came to Northbrook.

Recorded on October 12, 2012. Length: 30 Minutes.


JH: Good morning, this is Northbrook Voices, an oral history project sponsored jointly by the Northbrook Public Library and the Northbrook Historical Society.  Today is October 12, 2012.  My name is Judy Hughes and I am pleased to welcome Janis Irvine who has lived and worked in Northbrook since 1956.  You may know Janis from the Book Bin and we will talk with her about that and some of the other things she has to tell us about Northbrook.  Janis, we are so glad to have you here.

JI: I am delighted to be here.

JH: Janis, first would you tell us how you came to live in Northbrook?

JI:  Well, my husband and I were newly married.  He had been drafted and spent two years in Panama.  I had been there with him.  Now we came home after his tour and we were looking for a little house.  I was born and raised in Highland Park.  Lex was born and raised in Winnetka.  We couldn’t afford any of the houses where the big trees were so we came a little bit west.  My father-in-law  couldn’t imagine there was anything to buy west of Waukegan Road.  So in 1956 we came and worked with Ayars Realty .  I’ve also felt a bit guilty about this but Buck said I should not.  We were driving up and down the streets and saw a house which was “for sale by owner” and we stopped.  There was the perfect little house for us.  We bought it from a couple, Ellen and Bob Hindman, who later became our closest friends.

JH: And where was that little house?

JI: 1825 Thornwood Lane.  Those were neat little houses.  It has been torn down now and replaced with a McMansion but it was a terrific little house, good cupboard space, good closets.

JH: And you raised your family and you still live in Northbrook?

JI: Yes, we now live on the corner of Cherry Lane and Butternut.  We moved to that house which has kind of an interesting history which I hope I have right.  This house was built by Werhane of Culligan and then the next owner was Scott of Scott/Foresman.  Then the Schultz’ had it for about 10 years and we bought it in the fall of 1965 when I was pregnant with our second child.

JH: You have two children?

JI: That’s correct.  Our oldest is Nancy who was a broker on the Chicago Stock Exchange, a market maker, and decided about four years ago that the business wasn’t what it was when she started.  Both she and her husband left that business and Nancy now works with us at the Book Bin which is a real plus for us.  Our son Alex is married and lives in California and has, you’ll be surprised to hear, two of the most adorable little boys.

JH: A proud grandma.  Can you tell me a little bit about what Northbrook was like when you came here in 1956?

JI: I was thinking about that on the way over here.  I think the population was about 9,000 when we moved here in 1956.  It had been 3,000 until a few years before that.  The village fathers did an absolutely marvelous thing when they built the railroad underpass so you could open up the entire western part of the community.  The two shopping centers offered you everything that you needed.  I guess we really liked Northbrook in addition to finding the little house that we could afford, was that the village always seemed to me, and I still feel the same, without pretention.  It is a quiet community without flourish and without spangles.  It is just a quiet little village.

JH: You mentioned the two shopping centers on Cherry and you said it had everything that you could need there.  That’s a little different than the way it is today, can you elaborate?

JI: There were a number of little shops and at one time, early on, I bet in 90% of the shops, the owner of the business worked in the shop.  That makes a real difference for there is someone there seeing that things are done as you want them to be done.  There was Jane Friberg but I can’t remember her husband’s name.  I’ll never forget how my little boy who was about five years old came home after we had been shopping and when we got in the house he showed me an eraser.  I said that we didn’t buy that and he said he had stolen it.  I said we must return to the store so we got in the car and drove back to Friberg’s and I was going to have this whole little learning lesson for Alex about not taking things without paying for them.  I went up to Mr. Friberg and told him that Alex had something to tell him.  Alex said, “I stole this eraser” and Mr. Friberg said – “That’s OK kid.  Last week someone stole a typewriter.”  That wasn’t exactly what I had hoped he would say.   However, Alex got the message and didn’t steal again.

JH: Friberg’s was a stationary store?

JI: Yes.  We had a wonderful candy shop run by Ruth Ann Southworth and Mickey Ayars (became her name later). Mickey still lives in the Village.  Jane Hochmuth had a wonderful women’s clothing store – Jane’s – and her husband opened Leonard’s which their son still has and works there.  There was a linen store next to me at the Book Bin and, of course, there was the Book Bin and Kaden’s Shoes and Country Cobbler where the Book Bin is now.

JH: Weren’t there also two Five & Dime Stores, Woolworth’s and Ben Franklin, the Gift Box, and the Toy Castle

JI: It was just everything you would need.

JH: Sherwood’s Little Miss & Mister.  All you would need for children through adults and also gifts.  Well, in the 50s the Book Bin wasn’t there.  When did it open?

JI: The Book Bin opened in August of 1971.  It was started by four women who lived in the Village – Georgeanne Butterfield, Judy Wrongware, Joyce Edington and Sue Warner.  I think it was Joyce’s idea.  Shortly a couple of the husbands were transferred and I started working there.  When Judy’s husband was transferred, I became Sue’s partner.  We were partners until 20 years ago when my husband bought her out and Lex and I have been partners in the business ever since. 

JH: You have been at two locations in the shopping center?

JI: Yes, this is a wonderful story.  Sunset Foods was on the other side of Cherry and built the new store across the street about 12 years ago.  My landlord told me that Rich Cortesi told him he was not going to move if it entailed knocking down the Book Bin to make room for the new Sunset.  Rich said he would not move across the street if the landlord couldn’t find a space for the Book Bin.  That told me something about Northbrook.  As luck would have it Country Cobbler was just closing their Northbrook store so we took over the Country Cobbler space which was a couple hundred feet larger than our old space and had a back door which we hadn’t had before and is key to the efficiency of our operation.

JH: Tell me a little about working in and owning the Book Bin.  What is it like to own a bookstore?

JI: Well, it still is great.  My daughter used to say, “You work too hard.”  I told her she was using the wrong verb – it is a joy.  I would say that 98% of the customers we get in the store are a joy to work with.  They come in and they want to talk books.  What could be more fun?  That hasn’t changed in the least.  They are so pleased with what services we can offer.  I do pat myself on the back in one area.  I have hired a really wonderful staff.  We have a couple who have been there for 20 years, others for 15 years and it is not because of what I can pay them.  They are there because they love to talk books.  They love to read books and they are all well-traveled, college educated women.  I hope you believe this – this is the honest truth.  I have never heard a cross word between the ladies who work there.  They never criticize each other.  It is just a joy to go to work every day.  The combination of the people we work with, the product that we handle and the salesmen who come through to sell books.  It is still really fun, but it is hard and it is getting harder every day.  It is not so much the economy, I don’t think in Northbrook.  It is the throes of what the publishing industry is going through right now. They really don’t know what is happening.  The e-books are out there and there are the huge stores where you can go and buy books.  The books are stacked to the ceiling and they have the best sellers which they use to get you into the store as loss leaders.  They sell them at a loss.  Competing with Costco and Amazon is tough.  I read someplace that Jeff Bezos, the creator of Amazon, one of his objects in life is to get rid of “bricks and mortar” bookstores.  So that they sell books too.  They are starting their own publishing business and attracting authors.  It frightens me because we aren’t talking about nuts and bolts and screws – we are talking about our country’s literature and if the only way you can get a book is through someone in Seattle on the internet.  That’s why I signed a new lease.  It makes me so angry that someone in a cloud in Seattle is going to put me out of business after 40 years.   I’ll stop raving now.

JH: You missed the thing that makes the Book Bin so successful when you buy a book there – that is the interaction with the people. 

JI: I’ll tell you a couple of stories.  I heard one of our salesladies on the phone and she said – “no, no, you won’t like that and you have already read that.”  When she hung up I asked her what that was about.  She said it was a customer calling from the Phoenix Airport who was half mad because we had sold him such good books.  Now he had read all the ones he took on his trip and was in the airport bookstore to find a book to read on the plane to go home and she was telling him – “No you won’t like that – you have already read that.”  A true story.

We had a lawyer who moved to New York – a good customer and he would call once every 10 days and say OK send me that or that.  Finally I said – Jim, I hate to break this to you but there are bookstores in New York.  He replied – but they don’t know what I like to read.  That’s the customer service they get.  They depend on Sue because she likes a “good dysfunctional family” or Joyce for a good murder mystery. 

JH: The Book Bin also reaches out to the broader community.  You have at least one program buying books for inner city schools.

JI: Yes, the Giving Tree which we have done for about 20 years.  We have two schools and we get the names of 1st and 2nd graders.  We put the names on a tree in the window and ask the customers to buy a hard cover book for a selected child.  We gift wrap it and the customer writes a note to the child telling them the reason they are getting the book is because the teacher says “you are working so hard.”  That is one of my joys – taking the books to the classrooms.  Some of these children have never had a hard cover book.  This started when my daughter-in-law was tutoring a little girl years ago and she gave the little girl books for Christmas.  When she mentioned to the teacher that she thought the little girl liked the books, the teacher told her that last week when she was reading “James and the Giant Peach” to the class, one boy noted that one girl was absent.  The teacher told him to take the book home and read the pages she had missed to the girl who was absent.  The boy took the book and kissed it .  When the teacher asked why he kissed it, the boy said he had never had a book at home before.  The tutor said – “I think we should talk to my mother-in-law.”  That’s how the Giving Tree got started.

JH: I also know that you have a section of local authors.  Tell us about that.

JI: Yes, well, I really don’t like to have events at the store.  It disrupts what is fun – talking to people about books – but I began to realize I have a certain responsibility to promote local authors.  So we are trying to have more signings – last night we had Dennis Bryne signing his book on the War of 1812.

JH: Do you have any idea how many local authors there are?

JI: No, I don’t.  I will tell you, Judy, that the way the business is going now, I’ll bet I get two a week, not necessarily from Northbrook, who come in.  They have self-published a book and ask what we think of it, can we handle it.   More and more books coming down the road.  People are writing their stories.

JH: I know that there are several published on the Book List – Robert Kurzon – there are several authors from town.

JI: I am embarrassed I can’t bring up the names of others.  I have to be in my store to see the books.

JH: Don’t be embarrassed.  You said you were born in Highland Park but you do have some Northbrook roots.

JI: Yes, I told you, Judy, when you came in the store once that I had taken my kids and mother out to the little cemetery on Dundee Road because my mother wanted to see Mary Bubert’s grave.  Mary Bubert was my great-great-grandmother and my little boy thought that was the funniest name he had ever heard and that sticks in my mind, plus the fact that she was my Nana’s grandmother.  But we didn’t move to Northbrook because of Mary Bubert.  We were looking for an inexpensive little house.

JH: And what else did you find here after you settled in your little house?   You’ve talked a little bit about the community – what makes up that community?

JI: I feel great pride in this community.  When I come into this building – the library – just to see that the Village has supported this library.  And the Village supports a small independent bookstore which is more and more a rarity.  I have always loved our village because there didn’t seem to be any glitz about it.   It was just a nice little town.  Of course, the schools – our Glenbrook North is ranked as one of the best in the area.  And now we are even going to have a dog park, which I have to say is about time. It is just a nice little village which I have to say its major problem is taking care of the ash trees.  When you wake up in the morning you have to thank God to be so lucky to live in such a place as this.

JH: It is a good place to live and to raise your family.  Let’s go back to the way the village looked when you first moved here.  For example, the underpass on Cherry Lane.

JI: That was just being built when we moved here.  It opened up all the western property so that you could get in and out of the village without the delay at the railroad tracks.   That was when Bert Pollok was president.  For a couple of years at that time, I used to write the Village Newsletter.  I went to the meetings and took minutes and wrote the newsletter.  I wasn’t very good at it.  They finally hired someone who knew what they were doing. 

JH: Do you remember anything from those meetings?

JI:  No, I really don’t.  It was a long time ago.

JH: Well, that was the period of the rapid expansion of the village and the planning that occurred was very important.

JI: Indeed it was.  Weren’t we the only inland village for a long time that brought water in from Lake Michigan?

JH: Yes, we still are.  They wanted to assure that this village could continue to grow and be a town where people would want to live.

Is there anything else about our community that you would like to tell us?

JI: I can’t think of anything.  You have picked my brain, Judy.  There is nothing left.

JH: Before you went to work at the Book Bin, were you home with your children?

JI: As a matter of fact that was just passing through my mind and slipped away.  I went to work at the Village Library when it was very small.   It was located in the building that now houses doctors’ offices at Cherry/Shermer.  When we moved here we had been in Panama for 2 years but Lex was still in the military but only making about .17/hour so I had to have a job in Panama.   I tried to pass typing tests but could not so I couldn’t be a secretary.   I noticed in Stars and Stripes they were seeking an assistant librarian, with a degree in library science.  I applied although I didn’t have such a degree but was a history major who spent lots of time in the library.  They hired me and after a few monthsthey gave me a library to run.  So when we moved here I worked part-time with Mrs. Thorson in the Northbrook Library.  Also when the children got into Greenbriar, I volunteered in the library there.  I also volunteered in the library at the Hadley School for the Blind.  So it just seemed to fall into place that when the Book Bin opened that was where I belonged.  I needed to be with the books.  The children were in school.

JH: Does anyone ever ask if you have a favorite book?

JI: Both Lex and I were celebrating our 80th birthdays this year.  The ladies at the Book Bin wanted to do a display of my favorite books.  So I agreed to work on it over the next couple of weeks on a legal pad.  I kept writing down titles and it got to be too much.  There are favorites from my childhood.

JH: What are they?

JI: Carol Dale Snedeker.  You can still get her books.  She wrote historical novels for children.  I came to know her books through Miss Boyee(?) at the Highland Park Library.  Miss B. looked like the perfect librarian in her dark clothes with a white collar.  My mother and I would walk to the library and Miss B would help me pick out books.  She introduced me to Carol Dale Snedeker and historical novels.  I still love to learn historical facts through novels.  I loved “Winds of War” and “Fall of Giants” and other Kenneth Follett books.

JH: Our 30 minutes are up.  Thank you for participating in Northbrook Voices.  Your memories of life in Northbrook will add a unique perspective about the history of our Village.  Thank you so much.

JI: Thanks for having me.