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PAPER/PLATES is a
literary food blog, for readers with good taste.

At The Table With...Stacy Ratner of Open Books

At The Table With...Stacy Ratner of Open Books

Today we're welcoming our first non-blogger, Stacy Ratner of Open Books! This 41-year-old opened her colorful bookstore, one which has become a neighborhood favorite and a place I stop by often to pick up new and used books. Open Books' shelves offer up a great selection of well-priced titles, the proceeds from which fund the non-profit's literacy promotion mission. Stacy says 4,000 Chicago students participate in Open Books' literacy programs every year, which is the type of achievement worth supporting. If you're a local or just visiting, stop by Open Books at 213 W. Institute Place and give yourself a chance to fall in love with the technicolor interior and pick up some new books too.

Read on to get to know Stacy!

What is your all-time favorite book?

That is kind of like asking what my all-time favorite sense is, or which of my identical twin nephews (hello, men!) I love more. There is no way I can pick one favorite book of all time, so I'll give you one of my most adored authors instead: Agatha Christie. Her books may not be great literature, but no one does jewelbox murder plots better, and even though I now know the tricks in all of them, I still re-read and re-re-read them just for the joy of watching how beautifully everything falls together.

What meal do you love to cook?

When I was in law school, I ate rigatoni with tomato-basil sauce and Parmesan cheese almost every night. My kitchen was small enough that I could sit on a high chair and reach the stove, sink, and cupboard, so I'd prop my book on the counter and go through the entire process, from prep to dishes, without moving. I now make a slightly improved baked version which includes bread crumbs and other cheeses. I would never serve it to company, but it's my favorite treat dinner for myself, even though I now have to walk around to put it together.

What is your favorite food scene from a book?

If you had forced the all-time favorite book, I would have talked about The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, so I am thrilled to give it some love here. Towards the beginning, our hero Milo and his friend Tock the watchdog arrive at dinner in King Azaz's palace in Dictionopolis. When asked what they should eat, Milo suggests — with dubious results — a light meal or a square meal, and then discovers that they will be eating their words for dinner and half-baked ideas (THE EARTH IS FLAT, NIGHT AIR IS BAD AIR, etc.) for dessert. It's a short bit packed with puns and wordplay, and it's my favorite food scene ever.

Coffee or tea?

Hot apple cider, straight up — no caramel syrup, whipped cream, or other things that do not belong in apple cider. Failing that, hot chocolate. Failing that, Earl Grey tea.

What is the last book you abandoned?

We're not at the final abandonment stage yet, but my relationship with Infinite Jest is on indefinite hold once again following a brief fling and withdrawal this summer. Since I am determined to read it before I die, and since I have never managed to get past the first fifty pages or so, it may prove to be my link to immortality.

Which author would you most like to meet for dinner, and what would you eat?

My great-great-uncle Harold O'Brian, author of A Continental Yankee. I cannot hope to do it justice in my own words, so here is his Foreword:

I submit to you the true and unusual life story of Harriet Belcher O'Brian, the Yankee mother of seven children. She spent forty years of her life in Continental Europe. Harriet and her son, Harold, had been separated for thirty years when on the occasion of her final return to America a reunion and reconciliation were effected and this document resulted. This narration includes her experiences, the days of her romantic youth, the exotic and exciting years of her early married life, and some of the glamour of her association with European Royalty.   Of her five O'Brian children one was born in France, two in Germany, one in Russia, and one in America. Much is told here for the first time about a famous American dentist who became Court Dentist of Saxony and who was Harriet's first husband.   There are anecdotes about and highlights in association with European royalty and internationally famous people such as: Her Imperial Highness the Crown Princess of Saxony, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Anton Rubinstein, Emil Sauer, Joachim, Jerome K. Jerome, John Philip Sousa, Schumann Heinck, and others.   Had it not been for her husband's banishment from Europe, due to alleged intrigues involving a crown princess, Harriet might never have written this book.

The rest of the narrative is a heartfelt and (unintentionally) hilarious mix of maudlin sentiment, purple prose, political intrigue, and travel guide in which Harold, doing his best to impersonate Harriet, sets down her history for future generations. I'd have loved the chance to tell him how it resonates now, and to get the rest of the salacious details that somehow didn't get past his internal "would my mother write about this?" filter. Harold would choose the place for dinner, and I would do my best to find something vegetarian on the menu.

Where do you go to find new recipes? New reads?

Where do I go to find books of any kind? Work. ;) Seriously: with 50,000+ books in stock (and an extra-good cookbook section right in the front near the windows), it's impossible to resist the Open Books store.

Tell us about your business — what inspires it? Why do you run it? What is your mission? What are your favorite aspects of the work?

In 2006, facing a milestone birthday, I began wondering what I'd want to spend the upcoming years doing if they turned out to be my last ones. When I saw some of the grim statistics on literacy, I knew I'd found my answer. Our mission is to transform lives through reading, writing, and the power of used books, which we do by collecting books, selling them in our store and online, and using those proceeds to help fund literacy programs for more than 4,000 students each year. I run it because I was lucky enough to have the original idea, and because working with passionate, exciting, talented people in a place filled with color, creativity, and books (!) is the best job I could ever hope to have. 

What are your favorite blogs?

I love group blogs, especially MetaFilter / Ask MetaFilter, and am always delighted by new posts at Clients From Hell and Extremely Trivial Police Reports

Connect with Open Books: Twitter | Tumblr | Facebook | Instagram

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Elizabeth Kelly's The Last Summer of the Camperdowns & Dark Chocolate Lavender Gin Truffles