Sandy Koropp runs her Wheaton bookstore like a second home, and it also happens to look like one.
Four years ago this June, Koropp opened Prairie Path Books in an empty model, two-bedroom apartment in the northwest corner of a furniture store on the edge of downtown. But the cozy atmosphere has less to do with the nooks and crannies and more to do with Koropp's personal touches and a community she's built through the store.
"Charm is definitely all about the people," she says.
So when Tori Moyski bops into the store looking for a baby shower gift, the Prairie Path regular skips the pleasantries and picks up a conversation with Koropp. She also helps herself to the baked goods Koropp insists on making herself for her customers (On this afternoon, she's offering olive focaccia bread and peanut butter cookies in a kitchen near the cookbook section).
"She just makes everyone feel welcome," Moyski says.
Koropp and co-owner Jenny Riddle plan to replicate that feeling in "Prairie Path Books Annex," an extension of their original store, but the first to open in the heart of downtown.
There's nothing particularly remarkable about an indie bookstore that also serves as a community hangout. But Koropp got her start in brick-and-mortar bookselling at age 50 with no retail experience.
It's "a weird entrepreneurial story," Koropp says, which begins with borrowing her husband's travel suitcase.
A lifelong reader
Koropp grew up in Elmhurst, a kid with her "nose in a book constantly." Reading and writing came naturally, so she majored in English in college and went on to law school.
Koropp has experience in event planning and sports and entertainment marketing. But after her youngest of three kids was 14 and her husband asked her about her next career move, Koropp told him she always wanted to open a bookstore.
"He said, 'Sandy, Oh my God, those are closing. They are not opening,'" Koropp recalls. "And I said, 'that makes me want to do it even more.'"
But without a retail background, she was leery of investing in a storefront. Instead, she began visiting local book clubs -- selling titles out of that roller suitcase -- and hosting book signings and cooking demonstrations out of her home.
At one of those events, an employee of Toms-Price Home Furnishings suggested Koropp get in touch with one of the owners of the family-owned business about moving her events to a company store.
That encounter led to a meeting with Scott Price, and Koropp finding out about the model apartment. She asked if she could use the space rent-free, and Price agreed.
"I went home, and I Googled, 'How to open a bookstore,' Koropp remembers. "There's a binder exactly by that name. I bought the binder, and I hired the person who wrote it to help me, and so I opened three months later."
Even before she owned that binder, Price and Koropp had already settled on an opening date on the day they met.
"It's the best and worst quality that I have that I don't see obstacles," she says.
Koropp would learn she would have to leave her own mark on the bookshop.
"When I first had the store, I thought everyone will want to buy best sellers, so I had this big table of best sellers right in the front, and I realized that if you know the name of the book there are many ways to get it delivered straight to you door really inexpensively," Koropp says. "So that sort of thing was not going to be the thing that set me apart."
She worked to create a communal feeling in the store, furnishing it with Toms-Price chairs and tables that hold beautiful displays of books -- some of them little-known titles and all hand-picked by Koropp.
In the children's section, decorated with twinkle lights, Koropp favors books with a message ("A Girl with a Cape" is the most-popular). Another section is devoted to books about strong women. And if you browse the romance novels at Prairie Path, you'd never find a cover with a woman in a corset.
Koropp's other passion is cooking. She makes the distinction that her popular demonstrations are not "classes," but gatherings inspired by her favorite cookbooks. On June 27, she will lead a demo celebrating French cuisine in tribute to the late Peter Mayle and his best-seller, "A Year in Provence."
"I'm really causal and very happy to admit the things I know and I don't know, and people find that funny when I admit that I totally had a failure with whatever I'm bringing to the cooking demonstration, but it's fun," she says. "We all learn that way because everyone who is out there has a similar story, and it just sort of builds community when we share knowledge."
Koropp and Riddle, her close friend and a performer, will bring that community to the Annex. In July, they will take possession of the 720-square-foot space in a 125-year-old building at 102 N. Hale St. They plan to open after Labor Day, but Koropp already is looking forward to having window displays for the first time.
"I, for so long, have been grateful and still am so grateful for the start that I got, and we're definitely keeping the first store open, but I never had the traditional retail experience of being in the main part of downtown," she says. "I was scared of it, and so now I'm circling around."