Tribute to the Magic Tree Bookstore

Author’s note: Earlier this month, ownership of the independent Magic Tree Bookstore passed from co-founders Iris Yipp and Rose Joseph, after over 30 years of their service. A handful of people will gather in the shop this afternoon to celebrate during a “Turning the Page” party.

The Magic Tree Bookstore sits quietly on a peaceful avenue, which is the main thoroughfare for the western Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Illinois. Not unlike the well-maintained hedges of Harry Potter’s Privet Drive, it is the sort of place where you would not expect tremendous magical things to be happening. But the truth is that the Magic Tree, which specializes in children’s literature, has been the epicenter for magical gatherings since the first Harry Potter books were published. The shop has, in fact, played host to hundreds of creative workshops and events throughout its 30-year existence, featuring a broad range of literature, poetry, and music that stretches well beyond the works of J.K. Rowling. MuggleNet held events during book release parties for two of the seven Harry Potter books in or around the Magic Tree. Former employees, customers, and children of the community all fondly look upon the times they spent, and inspiration that they found, within its modest walls.

What follows is an account of some of the magical memories held inside the book store, primarily from shop co-owner Iris Yipp, in an interview conducted by this author. Photographs and additional quotes are cited where applicable.

“When we started [in 1984], we were one of the first [c]hildren’s book stores,” says Iris Yipp, co-founder of the Magic Tree. “There were others in the country, but we were one of the first. We opened in August, and then in September/October ‘[t]he Children’s Bookstore’ opened… they have since closed… [years later] Borders came in [less than half a mile away], and Borders left, and we are still here…” Adds Yipp, “We weren’t gonna make big money, and we always knew we weren’t gonna make big money… we held on.”

The first location for the Magic Tree, on Madison Avenue in Oak Park, was “sandwiched between the Democratic Party headquarters and a barber shop,” recalls Iris. Five years later, in 1989, the Magic Tree relocated to its now-current location, at 141 N. Oak Park Ave, 60301. Initially, the new location was adjacent to a silk flower shop. But when that closed, they were able to tear down the wall and expand the book shop even further.

The Magic Tree, since its inception, has featured weekly story time for children, as well as played host to authors, musicians, and celebrities. Children’s poet Jack Prelutsky appeared in the store, prior to his becoming the Poetry Foundation’s first ever Children’s Poet Laureate in 2006. And children’s musician Jim Gill has appeared in the shop.

Always our mission was to be diverse and to have different kinds of events,” says co-founder Iris Yipp.

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Of particular note to Harry Potter fans, Magic Tree co-founders Iris and Rose both attended a conference held by Scholastic for booksellers, prior to the US release of the first Harry Potter book, where they met series author J.K. Rowling. Says Iris,

She came to the U.S. before the first book was released. Scholastic had her on a tour, and booksellers could attend… they had it in Chicago, and we went, and Scholastic put the event on to introduce her. She brought her daughter along and sat at our table for a bit, and we got to meet her. Scholastic had bid on the U.S. rights to the Potter books, and they were telling us how big it was in England.”

The early US publication dates for the Potter books were months apart from the UK releases. Still, the Magic Tree held their first midnight release party for The Prisoner of Azkaban. It wasn’t until Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was published, on August 7, 2000, that the book releases synced up. And it was at the Magic Tree book release for Harry Potter 4 that co-founders Yipp and Joseph met local fan and budding author Debra Mitchell, who would soon begin working for them and creating even more involved events for a growing community of young Potter fans.

Under Mitchell’s direction, in 2001 the Magic Tree began hosting “The Owl Post Club,” a network of children roughly aged 6-12 who would write to each other under the alias of a fictional student at Hogwarts. Mitchell created the application form, which encouraged children to invent their character’s name, and orchestrated all correspondence wherein the children would write to each other about their character’s experiences at Hogwarts school. “It was all imagination,” says Iris. “They were a character, and they would develop that character through letters and what they were doing as that character at the school.” Eventually, the Owl Post Club expanded to include a partner school actually located in England, where letters continued to fly to and from.

In the early 2000s, the Magic Tree was flourishing. And according to Iris, it was Debbie Mitchell who first had the idea that the Magic Tree and surrounding businesses would run with for the June 21 release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, in 2003:

She’s really the one who thought of the whole Diagon Alley, thing and we really owe it all to Debbie. She was fantastic… when the fifth book came out, she had that idea of having […] each store take on a persona from the book.

“For that book, the fifth book,” explains Iris, “we told [t]he Avenue, the business association, ‘[W]e’re getting calls from different parts of the country. We really think that we need to ‘open it up’ and use the [nearby Scoville] park… we kept telling them, ‘[I]t’s gonna be big. We really think there’s going to be a lot of people coming in!'”

The surrounding businesses all on Oak Park Avenue, between Lake Street and North Boulevard, transformed their storefronts into shops and locations from Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter series. The Magic Tree naturally became Flourish and Blotts, which fans waited outside to receive their books at midnight; next door, Cafe Winberies became the Leaky Cauldron and served butterbeer to the crowd. US Bank, down the street, became Gringotts and actually offered a public tour of its vault. This author would describe the event as an unprecedented coming-together of businesses, all for a truly remarkable cause, resulting in an unforgettable evening. And this was the evening that MuggleNet, in conjunction with local author/publishers Wizarding World Press (who wrote The Ultimate Unofficial Guide to the Mysteries of Harry Potter) held a life-size wizard chess match and costume contest, in the middle of the cordoned-off street.

Video of the Oak Park Avenue “Diagon Alley” festivities, orchestrated by the Magic Tree, is featured immediately below.

Describes Yipp, “With Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, it was a totally new experience, and some of [the businesses] said they didn’t know what to do, and we had to give them suggestions. Some of them were great, and Logos (a Christian bookstore down the block) was right on board with the festivities. They were one of the few Christian book stores to sell Harry Potter, and they said some people had complained, but they were out there on that night. And [Cafe] Winberies did their butterbeer. It was like ‘their best night ever’ at that point… they even had to run out partway through and get more supplies!”

In subsequent years, the Village of Oak Park itself took on additional control of the Harry Potter release parties, Iris says. The Magic Tree met with the Oak Park Visitors Bureau and attended meetings. “The fifth book is where we were kind of behind everything… by the seventh book, the village took it and ran with it. We had access to the park, and it was all over the place. There were trolleys taking people around.” MuggleNet also attended the seventh book release, where webmaster and founder Emerson Spartz and Ben Schoen hosted a podcast in the park and facilitated the midnight countdown.

Of course, Harry Potter is far from the only events that the Magic Tree supervised or orchestrated in its astounding 30-year existence. In addition to hosting hundreds of guest authors and weekly storytimes for children’s literature, the Magic Tree worked with publisher Candlewick, which publishes the Where’s Waldo? series of books by Martin Hanford, to organize a 20-business-wide hunt for Waldo within Oak Park stores.

Iris explains, “The publisher [Candlewick] had the idea of businesses each receiving a little Waldo and hiding it within their stores. And so for us, 20 businesses participated, and the kids would all have a list of each of the stores and would be ‘certified’ once they found one. Candlewick supplied the Waldos and promotional materials, and [co-founder] Rose went around and talked to the businesses and got them on board.”

Praise for Magic Tree co-founders Iris Yipp and Rose Joseph is perhaps most succinctly delivered by former Magic Tree employee Bethany Fort, now a children’s librarian at Arlington Public Library in Arlington, Texas, provided to MuggleNet in a statement yesterday:

Iris and Rose were so involved on that street and strong supporters of local businesses. They taught me that local businesses have a responsibility to their community that corporations don’t always have. We hosted events, spoke about books at the schools in the area, and I knew many of our customers on a first[-]name basis. The Magic Tree is one of the few remaining book stores that specializes in children’s books, and that is significant because no one knows children’s books like Rose and Iris.

Personally, they taught me that to really understand children’s literature, you have to read it. Not just the books you are interested in; […] you read everything. The relevancy of a local children’s bookstore is that every staff member knows and reads the books and can give recommendations based on what they read, not what a publisher [i]s showcasing. I heard Iris tell many customers not to buy a book that she thought wasn’t right for them, and I respected that because it wasn’t just about selling the book as much as giving them a positive experience with bookstores and reading.

It is most important to highlight that the Magic Tree bookstore is not closing. Co-founders Yipp and Joseph are merely passing the torch. Starting May 1, ownership of the store passed to prolific local volunteer Beth Albrecht, who is a former actor, journalist, illustrator, and teacher. Albrecht, a huge fan and personal friend of Hugo-award-winning author Neil Gaiman, says that Gaiman encouraged her to buy the store after last year’s announcement that Yipp and Joseph would be retiring.

From the article on Oak Park River Forest:

“When I heard this opportunity was happening it was like bells started ringing in my head,” Albrecht said, adding, “I’ve always really loved this store. Iris and Rose are such incredible treasures.” She said that we are living in the “golden age of children’s books” because of the quality and number of books being written for young adults and middle school-aged kids. “Young adult books and middle school books are being written by wonderful writers who are speaking to children as if they are intelligent because they are, and that’s important.”

Says former employee Bethany Fort, “I accredit much of my decision to become a children’s librarian to their leadership in the store and their encouragement to pursue my goals. They gave me the freedom to try new events, make displays, and basically just experiment. I absolutely loved my time at Magic Tree and am so thrilled that it will remain open after their well-deserved retirement.”

Regarding what co-founders Yipp and Joseph will be doing in their retirement, both are looking forward to spending more time with their family. Iris Yipp is an avid skier and looks forward to more trips to places like Granite Peak in Wassau, Wisconsin. But in the mean time, Iris still takes her grandson to weekly story time at the Magic Tree.

From Yipp:

What I am going to miss most is to see the kids. To hear about them later, to see what happened to them. To see how they’ve grown, where they’ve headed in their lives. That’s wonderful, and I love that.

Speaking on behalf of MuggleNet, who joined the Magic Tree for two Potter book release parties, this author must also bid a fond farewell to Yipp and Joseph for founding and fostering the legacy of this active community independent bookstore. We look most forward to seeing where the Magic Tree goes from here and believe that the story of the Magic Tree is a prime example of how and why small book stores can make a not-so-small impact.