Roberta tells all ...

Roberta Rubin's Secrets to Success
Tuesday, July 07, 2009

by Liz Logan,

Owning an independent bookstore is a lot like being a mom. It never gets easy. If it's not one problem, it's another. These days, it's Amazon and its Kindle, and Costco.

The challenging nature of her job as owner of Winnetka's The Book Stall at Chestnut Court—a gig she's had for 27 years—is part of what makes Roberta Rubin such a superhero. She hasn't just weathered storms; she problem-solved with such gusto that she gained a national reputation as the best in her field.

How does she do it? We tease out the qualities that got Roberta to the top.

She loves her work.

"I love a good book. I just get so excited," the 71-year-old Glencoe resident says.

Nowadays it's "Cutting for Stone" by Abraham Verghese (Knopf, 2009), a novel about a medical family caught up in the turmoil of Ethiopia. "It's about living, it's about values, it's about beautiful writing," she says. "I didn't want to see it end."

Recommendations like this one keep her customers coming back. One of her favorite things is when someone grabs her arm and says, "I loved that book."

She brings her community together.

Roberta is "queen of the book group" as a brilliant selling tool, says Carl Lennerts, vice president of marketing at HarperCollins. She started hosting book groups in the early '90s, bringing together stay-at-home moms who loved to read well before Oprah's book club launched in 1996.

The Book Stall now holds a book group every week. And this fall the store will host its second annual symposium for local book clubs—and event that drew a crowd of 115 last year.

And as for author events, she's not the queen, but "one of the princesses," Lennerts says. Along with other independent bookstores, she started hosting authors in the '80s, and lobbied New York publishers to include Chicago on book tours.

Now, Chicago is an essential destination for authors, thanks in large part to Roberta. This year The Book Stall has hosted Alexander McCall Smith, Jane Hamilton and Julianne Moore (reading her children's book), to name a few.

She never lets people forget her face.

Roberta travels faithfully to New York three times a year—twice to visit with publishers, many of whom have become her dear friends, and again for the national convention Book Expo America. In turn, publishers visit her, too.

"She's a wonderful ambassador of independent bookselling to the whole of New York City publishing," Lennerts says. "She's a cultural force."

She looks at the big picture.

Roberta recognizes that the village of Winnetka keeps her business alive. She's served on the Winnetka Chamber of Commerce for many years, and is about to become president for the second time. Her long résumé also includes board member for the Great Lakes Booksellers Association and the American Booksellers Association.

"She's very important in the community with the other retailers, and bringing business to Winnetka and keeping things local," says Joan DeMayo, senior vice president of children's sales at Random House. "She's very active in making sure that Winnetka is a place that people want to continue to shop."

She's not afraid of new things.

The store is taking its inventory digital these days, with the help of Roberta's son John Rubin. His company, Above the Treeline, has created software that tracks books sales, data that can then be sold to publishers.

She speaks her mind.

The printed page is here to stay, according to Roberta. "I'm not so sure that reading a book on the Kindle, or even listening to it on tape, can give you the same satisfaction as fondling the book, hugging the book, and giving it to someone else," she says.

She lives her work.

"Roberta will go to a dinner party and come back saying, 'I sold these books, we better order them,'" says Mary Joyce DiCola, a Book Stall buyer who has worked with Roberta for almost 15 years.

Her glass is half full.

"I'm an optimist, for better or for worse," she says.


  1. Thank you for everything you're doing to promote books and new authors (said the new author!)

    Kelly Simmons, author of STANDING STILL

  2. Loved this interview. Thanks for the lovely comment you made about my book.

    Abraham Verghese