The Book Vine's customers grow

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(Mike Greene ())
Mike Greene - mgreene@shawmedia.com Chicago Public Schools preschool teachers Lydia Conroy (left) and Amy Liss listen as Isabel Baker (right), owner of The Book Vine, displays a new book Friday, July 27, 2012 at The Book Vine in McHenry. The Book Vine is a children's book distributor that selects only the highest quality of books geared toward preschools across the country.
Caption
(Mike Greene ())
Mike Greene - mgreene@shawmedia.com Amy Vandament, manager of The Book Vine, takes notes while on a phone call Friday, July 27, 2012 in McHenry. The Book Vine is a children's book distributor that selects only the highest quality of books geared toward preschools across the country.
Caption
(Mike Greene ())
Mike Greene - mgreene@shawmedia.com Chicago Public Schools preschool teachers Lydia Conroy (left) and Amy Liss browse through stacks of books Friday, July 27, 2012 at The Book Vine in McHenry. Conroy and Liss met The Book Vine owner Isabel Baker while at a conference in Washington, D.C., three years ago and have been making yearly trips to McHenry for Baker's recommendations on books ever since.

McHENRY – In the stock room at The Book Vine, behind the rows of neatly organized children's books ready to ship out, stands a shelf scattered with rejects.

The pictures on the pages don't pop. The words are weak and the sentences stale. When it comes down to it, the experts at the McHenry preschool book distributor are disappointed the books on the company's "wall of shame" ever were made.

"We can't believe a publisher cut down a tree for this," said owner Isabel Baker.

Targeting everything from the large chains to the individually owned preschools and day-care centers across the country, The Book Vine has carved out a niche in the 5-and-under book market by committing to putting only the best in their annual catalog.

That means undergoing a rigorous dwindling process, reading through about 4,000 books a year and tossing aside those that don't cut it. The best of the best find the company catalog, which has about 170,000 copies printed each year.

The worst of the worst find the wall of shame. And it's not just little-known authors. Baker and her employees will send a best seller to the discard pile if they don't see it as top-notch work.

"Just because it's popular doesn't mean it will go in the catalog," Baker said. "We're really committed to quality. Junk sells but we don't sell junk."

A librarian by trade, Baker never set out to lead a book distribution company. She was approached by a preschool teacher looking for help selecting books for her class about 30 years ago while living in Chicago.

Baker, who had a young child at the time, invited the teacher over to see and talk about her selection of children's books. From that encounter sprung an idea for a company that would sort through books from publishers and make recommendations for preschools.

Soon, Baker's apartment was filled with stacks of books. When it got tough to maneuver around them, she sprung for an office in Chicago. The Book Vine moved to McHenry in 1994.

Baker now attends several conferences a year across the country and has become a trusted source for children's book expertise.

"Within early childhood, she has a huge following," said Amy Vandament, a manager at The Book Vine. "She has a very loyal fan base."

That following is a big reason the company has been able to grow without much emphasis on marketing.

"It works out," Baker said. "We're profitable."

But that doesn't mean the company, which employs four full-time and three part-time employees, is satisfied with where it is. Baker is currently working on developing a web-based aspect of the business to appeal to parents, reaching outside the realm of selling only to schools.

Just as the catalog offers packages of books like the "Top Picks of 2012," the new division will package together books by characteristics like age and interest.

Baker is toying with the idea of advertising the new endeavor, which is yet to be named, in the New Yorker – a more aggressive marketing measure than any the company previously has taken.

But despite pursuing growth, Baker and Vandament agree that they wouldn't want to sacrifice their belief that "the best value is the best book."

"We wouldn't grow to sacrifice our core mission," Vandament said.

That commitment is born of a passion for children's books the two share, and which Baker said is present throughout the office.

Baker once told Vandament she was considering removing "Ask Mr. Bear," – one of Vandament's favorites – from the catalog.

"She's like, 'Are you kidding me? I'll quit,'" Baker said, laughing.

The Book Vine: What: A distributor of children's books serving preschools and day-care centers across the country. Where: 3980 W. Albany Street, Suite 7, McHenry Information: Call 815-363-8880 or visit www.bookvine.com

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