Augie Aleksy, owner of Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore in Forest Park, Ill., knows he’s one cool bookseller. How cool is he? Cool enough to be called that by many of his customers. Cool enough that the Chicago Tribune named his store one of the Ten Best Bookstores in Chicago.
And cool enough to have earned the Raven Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Established in 1953, the award recognizes outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing. This year, Centuries & Sleuths will share the honor with Once Upon a Crime, in Minneapolis, Minn. (Once Upon a Crime will be profiled April 17.) The Raven will be awarded during the 65th Edgar banquet April 28 in New York City.
The Top Ten status and the Raven Award rank as Aleksy’s two proudest moments since he opened Centuries & Sleuths 20 years ago. “It seems like all my 'moments’ come in two’s,” said Aleksy.
Centuries & Sleuths is a warm, inviting and well organized store where a customer can sit in a rocking chair while looking through books. A bust of Sherlock Holmes exclusively commissioned by Centuries & Sleuths graces the bookstore.
From the day its doors opened, Centuries & Sleuths has been a destination for the discriminating reader, a meeting place for authors and readers and a place for intellectual discussion. And that’s all been a part of Aleksy’s master plan.
When he was laid off from his job in banking-investments in 1989, he and his wife, Tracy, discussed starting his own business. Aleksy has a bachelor’s degree in political science and two master’s degrees in history and business-finance, so he wasn’t going to rush into a business without thorough analysis. His exhaustive research of bookstores, of readers habits and a survey at a local library proved that the specialties of history, mystery, and biography beat out any other category. The closest was the “Do It Yourself” category, which covered home-repair, gardening and computers. Aleksy took his research seriously. His store specializes in history, mystery and biography, and even some cookbooks that fall into line with these three areas.
“And what’s wonderful is when I look it over after 15 and then 20 years, many of the programs I wanted to do were dreams, but my friends and close customers helped make them happen,”said Aleksy.
The bookstore owner also credits his success with the author support he’s received. Authors both in the Chicago area and beyond regularly return to Centuries & Sleuths for signings and show up to support other authors’ events, and buy their colleagues’ books.
“The authors treat my customers and their reading fans with respect when they talk about their books and writing,” he said.
And authors have become Aleksy’s unofficial promoters, tauting Centuries & Sleuths to other writers and to members of the press, including during radio and TV interviews.
“It was through Barbara D’Amato’s reference to our store that the late Stuart Kaminsky came here for a signing with his mother,” Aleksy said. “Some have even used my name or the store’s in their novels, or in the acknowledgement, for the help I’ve given. Some also have dedicated their books to myself and the store.”
Authors also have brought Aleksy’s two most memorable experiences since owning Centuries & Sleuths – actor/humorist Steve Allen’s visit in 1992 and Sir Peter Ustinov in 1995.
“It was so remarkable how both came at least 45 minutes before they were due, spoke to my son one-on-one when he was 8 and 11 years old, respectively. Although the ‘private’ conversation was entertaining they made sure of the time and said that ‘No one who comes to see me waits for me.’
“Their discussions with the audience were fantastic and made you feel like they were on stage at Centuries & Sleuths. Both stayed until all their books were signed. They were both so professional and friendly. Many of our guest authors are like that, but these two individuals were of such stature . . . they didn’t forget their manners.”
In addition to booksignings, Aleksy is known for scheduling innovative programs such as mock trials and debates.
One of the store’s first events ever was “The Trial of Richard III” for the murder of his two nephews. A federal court judge, the neighbor of a customer, presided and brought his robes and gavel. Centuries & Sleuths did about 10 performances of that trial with more than 30 people in the audience each time. “The place was packed,” Aleksy fondly recalled.
The store’s Mystery Discussion Group also has performed six mystery plays, five of which were written by members of the group.
Among the store’s most popular events are the numerous “Meeting of Minds” programs similar to the PBS series.
Aleksy had long been fascinated by Dutch writer and historian Henryk van Loon’s book in which a variety of historial figures would meet for dinner and discussions. When he was making up his business plan, Aleksy recalled that book and also how Steve Allen would have actors portray the likes of Attila the Hun, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther on his PBS series Meeting of Minds that aired during the 1970s. To date, the store has put on 17 Meeting of Minds with more than 50 historical characters such as Ben Franklin, Edward R. Morrow, Sir A.C. Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, G.B. Shaw, Bram Stocker, W.E.B. Du Bois, and more.
Again, Aleksy knows he can count on authors. “The authors will adjust their tight schedules to be here, or explain why they can’t make it.”
Aleksy has plans for more events. He’d like to do a “Page to Screen,” comparing books to film adaptations and What’s Cooking in History & Mystery. But his next “big” brainstorm is a trivia contest between the History and Mystery Discussion Groups. “Both teams are pretty enthusiastic about the challenge. My wife, Tracy, and I have drawn up at least 50 questions in both categories, but we have to work on mechanics such as rules, time limits. But, my plans are to execute the first contest sometime around the Fourth of July. It always helps to have a deadline.”
Times are tough for bookstores and the publishing industry, but Aleksy’s secrets to his succes are simple.
“I am doing what I want, being creative, imaginative, not being too easily discouraged, having the almost perfect family to be in this business, being friendly and conciliatory as needed, stubborn and firm when necessary, having good customers and intelligent friends, being lucky, and working hard to keep my luck ‘good.’
“I also am watching the bottom line and budget, but not letting it be the sole basis for my decision making. Consulting with smart people like my wife, my accountant and my attorney. But, realizing in all this, the ultimate plan and responsibility are mine.”
Aleksy makes the bookstore business sound simple. Maybe too simple. Back in the mid-1990s, a man called to ask if Aleksy would buy his books since he was closing the bookstore he had opened in Melrose Park, Ill.
The man said it was Aleksy’s fault he was closing.
“Then he explained that he had been to our signing for Steve Allen and that he had a great time and that I made it look like so much fun and easy,” said Aleksy. “Therefore, I was responsible his leaving his job as an electrician and opening a bookstore that flopped. I said, ‘You should have spoken to me first.’ He said, ‘Ya, ya, ya!’ ”