Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Q&A: At Heirloom Books, Erik Graff seeks to keep community alive

Mika Ellison/The Daily Northwestern
At Heirloom Books, Erik Graff sells mostly secondhand volumes at market price, and donates the proceeds to the surrounding community.

If you’ve ever visited Heirloom Books, the all-volunteer, not-for-profit bookstore on the edge of Edgewater, you’ve probably spoken with Erik Graff, the 72-year-old store manager.

While The Daily sat down with Graff to discuss his work, a patron slipped in, jingling the bells on the door. Barely pausing in the middle of a phrase, Graff looked up.

“You know your way around, right?”

“Uh, no, but I can find my way around,” said the man, who barely paused on his way into the dense maze of bookshelves.

“Nope.” Graff responded. “You’ll get lost.”

He proceeded to regale the patron with the 30-second, rapid-fire rundown on how to navigate Heirloom Books, aided by a piece of paper taped to the side of a bookshelf.

For nearly seven years, all patrons at Heirloom Books have received this treatment from Graff, who previously worked as an academic dean, a psychiatric childcare worker and a publishing house employee.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Daily: Could you tell me how you came to run Heirloom Books?

Graff: Back in the very early spring of 2017, my friend said that there was a new bookstore open in the neighborhood, and so we walked over here. And this place was pretty much empty, except for this woman (Chelsea Carr Rectanus) sitting at what used to be the desk. I felt sorry for her. She had virtually no books and no bookshelves. She had a bed in the back over there.

So I got involved in helping set the place up. I donated a bunch of the bookshelves and a few thousand books and started coming here five or six days a week. Years later, during the COVID-19 pandemic, (Carr Rectanus) died. And her family asked if I could try to keep the store open. So with the help of my brother, who does aid work for Haitian education, we set this up as an all-volunteer, tax-exempt not-for-profit.

The Daily: Where does the bookstore’s profit go?

Graff: We set up scholarship programs. Our money goes to, or through, the Friends of Sullivan High School. Our other scholarship program is with Shimer College, which is the Great Books College of North Central, down in Naperville. We also have a woodworking scholarship for anybody who wants to learn woodworking.

They talk to me and we pick a shelf that should be replaced — because most of this furniture is from my basement or the alley, and it’s not optimal. We pick something that they’re interested in that would be useful for us. We pay their tuition for woodworking class, we pay for all the supplies and then they make a shelf. We give (them) a little brass plaque, so (they) become immortal.

Interestingly, all the shelves so far have been made by women.

The Daily: What role do you feel like this space plays in the community?

Graff: There’s not been any new coffee houses, and there’s only one bookstore in Rogers Park now. There aren’t any coffee houses that are open after 3 p.m. in the neighborhood anymore, except for Starbucks. There used to be lots of them. COVID-19 sort of wiped out all the little independent ones, which is sad. So, this is a place you can study. We get some students who come by here and study; They go down into the basement and sit there all day.

The Daily: Do you have any favorite volunteers?

Graff: I’ve got a three-year-old trained to climb up my chair and point to the sign — she can’t read yet, but she knows the different sections, basically. She’s extremely popular. And, according to her father, she has temper tantrums when he doesn’t bring her here. I’ve got candy for her and her 6-year-old brother, and there’s some toys over there for them. Sometimes they spend six hours here, and they don’t get bored.

The Daily: Why have you chosen to keep volunteering here?

Graff: Well, I’m an old person. If I wasn’t here, I’d be hanging out — I mean, I used to hang out at coffee houses and study. I never stopped studying. I still think like a graduate student. This feels more useful. I mean, why do you think we’re alive? What’s your purpose in life?

The Daily: What would you say yours is?

Graff: I would say that it’s “ahimsa.” Avoid all harm. And then the other thing is to facilitate, promote and encourage the optimization of other people’s potentialities. And this pretty obviously does that, doesn’t it?

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @MikaEllison23
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