Smile Politely

Revisiting an old classic

For a little over 30 years, the Jane Addams Book Shop has graced the Downtown Champaign area with its whimsical charm and overwhelmingly diverse selection of literature. With three levels packed floor-to-ceiling with bookshelves, the shop can be somewhat intimidating at first glance. But as you venture further in, this seemingly little store begins to reveal more and more of its secrets, its hidden nooks and treasures, until you realize you’ve been walking through it for much longer than you planned. For anyone who enjoys a good read or just a casual trip back in time, this place is simply paradise.

Walking through the front door felt very familiar. I could remember standing in that same spot years ago and asking myself if I’d died and gone to some sort of literary heaven. To give you better context, I had been a college freshman English major at the time, so my fanaticism had gotten the better of me. I began similar feeling of wonder as I ambled among the shelves, stopping occasionally to check out a title that caught my eye. At the back of the shop, a set of stairs guided me into a little reading room with a pair of comfy chairs and a table. Next set of stairs is actually so well hidden that you could accidentally miss the entire third level altogether if not for a tiny sign that reads “More Books Upstairs”.

The hidden stairs feel almost like the entrance to a children’s hideaway or a secret attic. They lead you a dozen more rooms, each designated by subject matter. History, travel, crafting, mystery, romance. And surprise! They’re all absolutely filled to the brim with books! Along the hallways, classic furniture and nostalgic trinkets grace any empty spaces yet to be filled with books. The multitude of rooms and stuff can make it very easy to lose track of time, as well as direction. It took a good three minutes of frantic searching for me to find my way back to the stairs.     

The history of the shop actually began in the 1970s, when Flora Faraci and Nancy Finke opened the first Jane Addams Book Shop in the Chicago Loop. It was founded as a feminist book shop, offering literature written predominantly by female authors. Faraci later re-opened the shop at its current location on Neil St. in 1984, where she ran the business for 25 years. A new chapter for the shop began in 2009, when Flora decided to retire. Unable to accept the idea of letting the store be turned into another bar or pub, she sold the store to Don and Susan Elmore, a book-loving Champaign couple. The Elmores were happy to continue Faraci’s legacy by maintaining the shop in the same fashion as she had done, right to this day.

I had the privilege of sitting down with Judy Elmore, daughter-in-law of Don and Susan. As store manager, Elmore runs the day-to-day activities of the shop and helps process the titles that come in and out the door. I asked her more about her role as manager and how her life has changed since making the shift from a corporate job at Horizon Hobby to a small business like this one.                        

Elmore: It’s been a wonderful change. I’m much happier than I was at my old job. I’ve always wanted to work in books. I worked in libraries for a long time but I need to get a “real” job that paid the bills, so I worked in the corporate world. But then, I was given this opportunity and it’s much more my style. I’m much more into the small business life, keeping the community aware of our shop. I love interacting with the people in the community much more than I ever did in any other position.

SP: What kinds of people do you get coming in here?

Elmore: We get all sorts. Many young people. Parents bring their children in because we have a large children section, so kids learn early about used book stores and such. We get a lot of college students. A used book store is awesome for that age group. I was big on them when I was in college too. Being in a university town, we get a lot of people like that in here.

SP: That leads me a bit into my next question, community-wise. As e-books and paperless technology have been growing in popularity in recent years, how has the shop maintained its presence in the community when it comes to selling books?

Elmore: One of the things that I like to point out about e-books is that there’s only so many of them. The thing about a lot of text, a lot of books, is that they haven’t been made into e-books, especially out-of-print ones. A used bookshop is in a much different position than a new bookshop, where most of their books are probably digital. Here, we get a lot of books that you’re not going to find as an e-book. So we keep relevant in the sense that we have stuff that people aren’t going to find on the Kindle or other e-readers. We are finding also that people love books. They still want books on their bookshelves; they still want to flip through pages; they want to put technology down to the side. So we’ve found that as long as we keep a presence at all, we’ll have customers. In the last 5 years, we’ve also been able to do a lot of more in terms of promoting and getting out in the community and talking with people and being more visual.

SP: So I understand the store sells both new and used books. Are those used ones donated?

Elmore: We have various processes [of acquiring books]. The biggest way we get books is through the community. We get book donations and we get people who turn their books in for store credit. We also go out and search for books in library sales, estate sales, garage sales. We also get people who call us and tell us they have a large collection of books to give away and most times will offer a low amount for them. We offer to pack up the books and haul them out, so providing that labor really cuts down on the price for us.

SP: Do you see any major changes for the store in the future?

Elmore: I don’t see any chances for the store in the near future, but one thing we’ve done in the last five years is inventory. We’re about 50% of the way through cataloguing all the books. We have, we think, 70-80,000 titles. It’s possibly more, like 100,000 books. We’re not sure. We’re slowly going through everything, and as people bring books in, we inventory those. We have a growing catalog that people can search online, so that’s one way we’ve incorporated an online presence. It is a part of the world, and we have to go along changing with it and utilizing the tools at hand. By selling online, we get a bigger reach of potentially customers. But ultimately, we want our community to see what we have in the store. That’s one of the changes I see, just more and more online presence. It’s good in staying with the times.

SP: I agree, because not everyone knows about the store and it really is a cool place for people to visit.

Elmore: It is hard for us [to get our name out]. Advertising is expensive, so we do a lot of social media, a lot of word of mouth. And then we’re trying to get out more with various ads in community things. We don’t do a whole lot of advertising aside from big publications. We’re always looking for different ways. We started working with the Champaign Center Partnership, the Visitor’s Bureau, and other groups to work with to get the name in a place where people might chance upon it. People have to be somewhat interested in finding us to even notice our ads.

SP: Do you have a favorite genre or section of books?

Elmore: I really like science fiction fantasy and historical-based-in-fact fiction. I like a lot of philosophy too—that was my major in college. Basically, if the book has an interesting subject, I’ll probably be interested enough to sit there and page through it. That book shop is bad for me in that way. I can sit and look at a lot of books.

SP: I’m guilty of that as well. I didn’t realize just how much time I’d gone through just walking around checking out all the books upstairs.

Elmore: Yeah, that doesn’t surprise me. Often, people come in and they aren’t expecting the size [of the store] and so they’ll want to come back and spend half the day here.

SP: What’s your favorite part about working here at Jane Addams?

Elmore: My favorite part is the books. I love seeing all the titles, all the things people have written about and just seeing how the views that people have. In our World War II section, we have tons of books on that because people have tons of different ways of looking at a situation and that’s awesome. So I love digging in and seeing that.

The Jane Addams Book Shop is located at 208 N Neil St. in downtown Champaign. For more information on hours of operation, book titles available, events, and more, visit their website here or email them at

Photography accredited to Sam Logan.

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