Around the time she turned 35, Stacy Ratner had one of those moments that can propel you to action or into existential despair.
"You think, 'OK, I live in a big city, I could get hit by a bus any minute. What is the last thing I did?'" she said.
Ratner had gone to law school, worked in graphic design and helped launch several Internet startups. But this was a woman who had wished since age 7 to be a copy editor. Her literary passions had taken a back seat.
Hoping to parlay her startup experience into something meaningful, Ratner in 2006 launched Open Books (open-books.org), a nonprofit that sells donated books to fund literacy programs for kids.
She started it in the basement of her then-South Loop home, where, to her shock, within three months she had amassed 50,000 donated books that crept up the stairs and into her living room.
Three years later, Ratner opened a bright, cheerful storefront in River North, at 213 W. Institute Place, where 50,000 mostly used books — 10,000 of them children's books — neatly line shelves alongside a fireplace lounge (where book clubs can meet), a purple peekaboo house (demarcating the kids' area) and funky furniture that is for sale.
Upstairs, in the spacious Open Books offices, which feature a whimsical Crayola explosion with 21 paint colors on the walls and desks made of old doors, kids on field trips are able to write and perform their works on a small stage ringed with twinkling lights while they wear pencil costumes (it helps loosen them up, Ratner says).
The other programs include Open Books Buddies, which sends volunteers to elementary schools for one-on-one reading sessions; VWrite, which virtually coaches high school juniors in communication skills and resume writing; and Read Then Write — Ratner's favorite — in which teens read and discuss books from a particular genre and write their own stories in that style, which Open Books then publishes. (The published authors celebrate at a gala event with sparking apple cider.)
Sixty to 80 Chicago Public Schools participate in Open Books programs, which this year are on target to reach 5,000 kids, Ratner said.
About 75 percent of Open Books' $1.2 million annual budget comes from sales from the bookstore and online. (Ratner has a warehouse in Pilsen with an additional 80,000 to 100,000 books destined for online sales.) Not bad, considering the naysayers who chided her for embarking on a "dinosaur enterprise" in an age of e-readers.
"If the Open Books story has a moral at this point in its development, it's that the company your heart tells you to start is the right one to start," Ratner said, "even if the financial model is not the one you think it should be; even if the market isn't lined up to receive it."
Ratner just marked her 10th year of completing National Novel Writing Month, which challenges participants to write 50,000 words during the month of November. Ratner, 40, lives in Highland Park with her beagle, Jameson. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: Where do you get the books?
A: That is such an awesome question because it's different every day. The majority of them are individual gifts: People show up with a bag of books, or they have us come pick them up. And then there's the vast other spectrum: corporate donors, media outlets will give us books they got as review copies, Boy Scouts will do a book drive for a merit badge. And then we get the completely random donations, like the people who pull up in a moving truck, or people who are in town to clean out a dead relative's collection. One time we got a plastic footlocker in the mail, bound up in tape. It was full of paperback thrillers and mystery romance books from a deployment in Afghanistan. The soldiers had finished reading them and passed them on to us.
Q: Is it a little funny that soldiers were reading mystery romance novels?
A: I love that. It kind of shows that love can flourish anywhere.
Q: How were you able to get schools to sign on to your literacy programs, given that you had no teaching experience?
A: I hired a literacy director who used to be a second-grade teacher and community organizer. She got on her bike and went to schools within biking distance and got the first Buddies schools to sign up. Now we have a reputation to build on. One of my favorite things about building a company from your basement or garage is that you get to bring on people who are so much more talented than you are in whatever area it is that you want them to excel. I hadn't worked in a bookstore. I am certainly not one of nature's accountants. But bringing the team together is just one of the most rewarding things I can do.
Q: Have you surprised yourself?
A: Every day. But mostly because I've been so amazed by what other people are willing to do. It really inspires you and pushes you to do things outside your own zone of comfort. I, for instance, am not a gifted public speaker. But as Open Books started to gain some notoriety, I started to be asked to be on panels. And at first I would say no. But then I watched what everyone around me was doing, and they wouldn't have done that. They believe strongly in this; they are all overcoming their fears every day. Stand up and lead. So now I do things that are scary to me. And public speaking has become easier.
Q: What is your greatest attribute?
A: Stubbornness. Because certainly there have been a ton of times at Open Books and previous companies when it would have been a whole heck of a lot easier to say, "Fine," and walk away. But I started it, so I'm stubborn about it. It's going to work.
Q: How do you relax?
A: I make quilts. You thought I was going to say I read books! But you have to do at least one other thing or else you become a completely one-sided person.
Q: This may be an impossible question, but do you have a favorite book?
A: My No. 1 answer is "The Phantom Tollbooth," by Norton Juster. It is a life-changing book: a) because it's about reading and writing, and b) because it is a young-adult book which is full of adult humor, and it's snarky and it's smart and it's funny. That is probably my favorite book of all time … along with "Moby-Dick," "Lolita," "Dangerous Liaisons" and anything Agatha Christie has ever written because, in terms of which author I read the most, it's definitely Agatha Christie.
Q: How long have your bangs been green?
A: They have been some color other than their natural brown — green, purple, blue — since 2008. I keep thinking I'm going to give it up and go back to having normal hair. And then a kid will say, "I love your hair!" Also, we all go to so many things, classes and networking events, and I'm so bad with faces, and I sympathetically believe other people are bad at it also. It helps to say I'm the one with the green hair.
We asked Stacy Ratner where she finds inspiration when life or work become overwhelming. Her answer: letterboxing, a treasure hunt-style hobby in which people hide boxes in public places and post clues online for others to find them (letterboxing.org).
"It's inspiring to see how much effort, creativity and love people put into the boxes they place, and it's rejuvenating to head out into the woods or a quiet cemetery or somewhere else off the beaten path, in search of those treasures," she said.