When Mary Beth Nebel died in July at the age of 67, the owner/operator of the “I Know You Like a Book” bookstore in Peoria Heights was widely known as both a champion of the arts and an advocate for local businesses.
In opening her bookstore in 2006 after taking early retirement as a corporate attorney at RLI Corp., Nebel entered a new world.
“It’s a lot more challenging,” she said then. “I can’t go to the accounting department, the IT department, or marketing department. I have to do all those things myself. But it’s a lot more fun.” Plus, she got to bring Ringo, her faithful dachshund, to work.
The early years of the 21st century were perilous times for book dealers. “Digital publishing is scrambling the industry’s rules,” read a New York Times headline. In 2007, Amazon released its first Kindle, and sold out in weeks.
But Nebel wasn’t intimidated.
“I think there will always be a place for printed books,” she told this reporter in 2011. “I think the small guys will survive … It’s a bit difficult to assess consumer behavior but I think there is the beginning of a groundswell for people supporting independent bookstores over big box stores and online purchases.
“There’s something very comfortable about holding a book and turning a page that you just don’t get with an e-reader,” Nebel continued. “In fact, there may be something of an uptick in new bookstores opening up. The bookstores that survive will have to focus on more than selling books.”
Duffy Armstrong, Nebel’s partner when the bookstore opened, recalled how it got its name.
“Mary Beth said it was right after a church service — she had a strong faith — that she recalled the voice of her late mother who used to say to her, ‘Mary Beth, I know you like a book. What are you up to?’ That’s where the name came from.”
Armstrong remembered Steve Shostrom, co-founder of the Illinois Valley Striders running club, dropping by the store one day. He told Nebel that he’d seen the coolest bookstore while visiting Washington, D.C. “‘It even had a wine bar,’” Armstrong recalled Shostrom telling her. “It wasn’t long after that she added her own wine bar.”
Making the store available to groups and book clubs for after-hours sessions was just another way for Nebel to support the Peoria Heights business community. She took part in events year-round, like staying open during the Kris Kringle Market hosted by Peoria Heights last December. Sadly, it was the last time I saw her.
In addition to supporting local authors with regular signing sessions, she also brought in some big names. “The first guest author we had at the store was Mitch Albom, author of Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” said Armstrong.
David Greene, then co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition, came to I Know You Like a Book in April 2016 to do his radio show, promote his own literary effort (Midnight in Siberia) and salute Mary Beth, a supporter of public radio.
“Mary Beth could have been on NPR herself. She was sly and funny and her late-night throaty voice made you feel as if she opened the store just for you,” noted Terry Bibo, the longtime local newspaper scribe. “Even when she told our book club her health problems meant the store would close, she was so casual that we had no clue we’d never see her again.”
That casual approach to life was evident in the post Mary Beth left a few weeks before her death: “In case you’re wondering, I’ve had some heart issues lately. I’m getting good care at Loyola Medical and I’m getting better. I don’t know when I’ll be able to open the bookstore. Meanwhile, say a prayer, count your blessings and keep reading.”
We’ll keep reading, Mary Beth, and we’ll count you as one of our blessings.