BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
With what will surely be a PBS blockbuster, titled Amy’s Book Hunt, airing this afternoon and again on Tuesday, and her own children’s book club filling orders for over 3000 children across the world, Amy Brent Wexler is Chicago’s queen of the printed word.
She takes her crowded calendar in stride, noting that her father, the legendary bookseller Stuart Brent, was on camera every night for seven years.
“He would be at work at his Michigan Avenue bookstore, come home for dinner, then read a book and go to bed. The next day he would be at the television studio to tape an interview at 5:30 a.m., with my mother Hope interviewing him for three of those years, then go to work and do it all over again. The show was called Books and Brent.”
While Stuart Brent would review the book he had read the night before on his show, Amy’s Book Hunt captures the thrill of the chase: how to find rare books in your own collections, flea markets, and even “take a book, give a book” exchanges.
“It is so much easier to find a valuable book than a valuable piece of art or furniture, where you have to know your Chippendale or whatever. It is written right in the front of the book whether it is a first edition or not. Just the other day I got off the train and saw a sign for people to leave a book and get a book. I left the paperback I had just finished on the train and picked up what turned out to be a first edition of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
For Amy’s Book Hunt, we have already scouted over 50 places—collectors’ homes, used bookstores, flea markets—where we are tripping over treasures.”
Emmy-winner Philip Koch and Gary Sherman, two filmmakers known for movies and documentaries, are co-producing this book version of the wildly successful Antiques Roadshow.
“I am a pretty shy person and I have spent my whole career under the radar. I do think my future with books was cinched at an early age, as my early baby photos prove. There was never any choice of what career path I would follow.”
The Stuart Brent Bookstore began on Rush Street, where it was known as the Seven Stairs, then moved to 670 North Michigan Avenue. Chicago architect Norman DeHaan expanded it in 1968. During her early years, the bookstore was the second home for Amy and her siblings. The basement always housed children’s books and her father had a special love for recommending books to parents. He founded the Stuart Brent Children’s Book Club, which Amy heads today.
“I always worked for my father. When the store closed in 1996, my first baby, Martha, was very young, and I decided to take the Stuart Brent Children’s Book Club to my basement. It was pretty small initially, but now we have around 3000 children who receive books. Some books are sent monthly to children who are still in utero, and we have members like Cecilia Valentine, who is in her 70s, who said she missed something by not reading good children’s literature as a child. We also now have a second generation of members.”
Amy herself chooses the books to be sent to each member. Her goal is that “each child who opens a book will have a fine experience.” Members choose a 4-, 6-, or 12-month subscription, and Amy works with the families to create a reader’s profile. All books are gift-wrapped and are sources of great anticipation for members.
“This fall I have about 10 new titles on my list—not new this season, but ones I want to add. I don’t have a list of books a child has to read. I start out by judging the book, deciding if it is a really good one. What I want to do is build a reader, someone who values books. There are so many things competing for a child’s attention. Children should feel that reading a book is a worthwhile expenditure of time.
“I do have a pile of my mistakes, ones I call ‘I can’ts.’ They are not returnable—I don’t want to give them away, and I can’t destroy them. They will sit there for years.”
Amy, who with husband, Ken Wexler, has three grown children, loves opportunities to talk with her customers—both parent and child—as well as study questionnaires sent back by new clients.
“I can discover what sort of a person the child is by hearing what they are reading. It is important to know reading levels and if they have mastered connected texts. The most telling question on my questionnaire is: What are three books that you yourself have read? It is the jumping off point to know where the child is right now.”
Stuart and Hope Brent continue to be her inspirations.
“My father was not a snob about reading. If a book was good, it was good. One of his close friends was James Baldwin—a gay black man who read everything in his Harlem branch library and then took a subway into Manhattan to read at the city’s main library. He admired Baldwin so much.
“My father saw a book not as a valuable object that could go up in price because of its rarity. He saw a book for what it was: something authentic and intelligent.
“My siblings and I have hundreds and hundreds of his books. I have the largest storage area at one location, my attic has books stacked floor to ceiling, and more in my book club areas.”
As Amy researches more episodes for Amy’s Book Hunt, she recalls a conversation with a friend, the art critic Victoria Burns, which gave her the idea for the show.
“This is one of my favorite examples of how a book becomes very valuable. Victoria, who is a very intelligent woman, invited me over to her house when she was downsizing and said that I should look at her children’s books. ‘How much?’ I asked her, for a little book I found. She said, ‘What about fifty cents?’ then went down to a quarter. I told her that this book was worth at least $350 now. We all probably would have something similar happen with our own collections.”
Amy’s Book Hunt airs Sunday, January 7 on WTTW HD at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesday, January 9 on WTTW Prime at 4:30 p.m. For more about the Stuart Brent Book Club, visit stuartbrent.com.