Stacy Ratner: Chicagoan of the Week

If you find yourself on the Brown Line riding toward the loop anytime soon, look down and left just before the Chicago stop and you’ll find “Open Books,” a fun non-profit book hub that just moved into new digs on Institute Place. Aside from being a well-stocked and quirky little shop, Open Books has an inspiring back story colored by an even more inspiring Chicagoan –- Stacy Ratner.

Ratner launched the venture in 2006, initially from her basement, as a means of combating illiteracy in Chicago. She conceptualized the business as a “two-storied dream store” in which all the proceeds from selling books on the first floor would help fund “a spectrum of unique adult and family literacy programs upstairs.” Since her modest beginnings, Ratner’s collection has amassed over 300,000 books, fueled in large part by used book donations and literacy partners around the city. In the past three years, Open Books has called on over 2,000 volunteers to help raise funds and gather books for the noble cause of teaching people how to read.

We briefly chatted with Stacy on a range of topics — including books, restaurants and urban kayaking — and discovered a little bit about the mind behind this great Chicago-born mission. Stacy was born in the Chicago suburbs and is about as native as they come despite a few years spent in Boston and Philadelphia. “The best part about living downtown is rediscovering all the awesome places I loved when I was a kid and being able to walk to a lot of them,” she said.

Stacy is a first-rate dog adorer, warning us to “beware lest I show you many, many photos of my beagle, Jameson.” We didn’t necessarily ask, fearing there wouldn’t be enough space on the page. Like almost every Chicagoan, she also is a first-rate foodie with a few interesting tips for your next meal. “I don’t know how anyone can pick the best place to eat in a city of a thousand incredible restaurants,” she said. “But I love breakfast at Yolk, lunch at Gioco, dinner at Mercat a la Planxa, and ice cream anywhere.”

When asked about her favorite place to “hang out” in Chicago, Stacy played it cool. “Is it cheating to say that Open Books is the best hangout spot I know?” She said. “[With over] 50,000 books, soft couches, awesome music, an antique typewriter, lots of events, and an amazing assortment of random stuff, what more could you want?” But she wasn’t entirely self-promotional, adding that she also loves “the park outside the Clarke House at 18th and Indiana [because] it’s tranquil, tiny, and strangely timeless.”

Of course, we had to ask about her favorite reads, given her dedication to books and literacy. Among her favorite authors are Agatha Christie,  P.G. Wodehouse, Daniel Mendelsohn, Tom Stoppard, and Terry Pratchett, and her favorite book of all time is Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth.”

“I have the best job in the world,” She said. “I run a literacy non-profit that spreads the love of reading, writing, and used books.”

We asked Stacy if there are any unique experiences that many Chicagaons might not know about, and she told us about kayaking through the center of downtown, between all the skyscrapers. “I had no idea such a thing was possible until I did it last summer,” she said. “Seriously: try it. It is soothing and surreal and spectacular.”

And since she’s a non-profit mission starter, we thought it is safe to assume she has some spirited beliefs. Stacy considers herself an “idealistic humanist,” saying that “Chicago has the same huge challenges as any world-class city: energy, health care, education, housing, etc. But it also has a uniquely ‘why the hell not?’ attitude about trying huge-scale solutions to them.”

“Find the cause that sets your heart racing,” she said. “Draw inspiration from the historic record of achievements here and find a way to pour some of your life into it.”

Finally, we asked Stacy what she would nickname Chicago if it didn’t already have one like, the “Second” or “Windy” city. She left us with this inspiring thought:

“When I moved downtown, one of my friends asked how I liked living in the Big City. I think that’s actually a very apt description: Chicago’s a place with big spaces, huge buildings, giant dreams, epic culture, and a worldwide reputation. Living here is both going big and going home.”

Visit the Open Books website or get to the store and look around. If you’re looking for something in particular, shoot the staff an e-mail at the address below.

The Essentials:
Location: 213 W. Institute Place
Open Every Day: 10am – 7pm

Jason Shough

About Jason Shough

In June of ‘09, Jason moved from Columbus, Ohio to Chicago and burrowed into the Lakeview neighborhood on the North Side of the city. He writes about arts and culture for UPchicago and contributes to a local music website. Additionally, Jason is currently earning his Master’s degree at the Medill School of Journalism where he .

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