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Northern Star

The Student News Site of Northern Illinois University

Northern Star

Classic Books: A garage bookstore, DeKalb staple

Parker Otto
A sign for Classic Books sits on the wall of a Garage. Classic Books is a bookstore in downtown DeKalb. (Northern Star File Photo)

DeKALB – Wearing a shirt that reads “So many books, so little time,” Charles Sigwart is surrounded by stories but also full of his own.

Sigwart is the owner of Classic Books, which sells used books that mostly range in price from $3 to $6. Take one step into the garage, and you are immediately surrounded by shelves that are overflowing with titles.

Sitting behind a computer in the middle of the store, Sigwart is often ready to start a conversation with customers who find his hidden nook.

“We’ve got literally books on subjects most people have never heard of, and people come in here who have backgrounds in very esoteric things,” Sigwart said.

One of his most popular stories is the summer he lost his eye and got a hook for a hand in his sophomore year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I came back from MIT after my freshman year. I was mucking around with amateur rocketry, and a couple of weeks before I was going to go back for my sophomore year, I literally blew myself up,” Sigwart said.  “Lost a hand, a thumb, a couple fingertips blew out.”

Classic Books sells texts that fall into about 25 categories, including mystery, adventure, sci-fi and fantasy, classic novels, kids stories and all kinds of non-fiction books.

The most rare collection of books Sigwart has owned is “All Quiet on the Western Front,” an anti-war book during Nazi-era Germany. The volume was published in Berlin in 1929 and written in German.  

“I almost sold it to a guy who came in and said ‘How much will you charge me for the whole box?’ and I said 40 bucks,” Sigwart said. “Then I began to think, why is he bidding on the whole damn box?” 

It was after using Google Translate to figure out what the books were that Sigwart realized he was in possession of books that the Nazis had done their best to destroy. He eventually sold the books for $225. 

Sigwart’s love of reading began in the 4th grade with a habit of reading ahead of his class.

“I was bored with the classes, so I was reading every textbook, including all the stuff that they weren’t assigning,” Sigwart said.

Sigwart began selling books in garage sales until 2005, when a local ordinance limited residents to two garage sales per year. 

“I was selling books off my driveway,” Sigwart said. “A neighbor says, ‘I have a garage for you on commercial property.’”

The book shop owner and his wife Gretchen both have doctorate degrees from Northwestern University and are both retired NIU professors. His daughter, Julia Sigwart, has a doctorate and is a marine biologist at Queen’s University Belfast.

Classic Books has no website, but has a business listing on Google. Sigwart proudly shares that some people find out about the store when searching for publications by his daughter, and stumble upon him, “the less famous Sigwart.”

“When I retired from teaching, I started reading a lot,” Sigwart said. “One of the first things I did was to pick up a list of 50 most banned books. I scrambled around flea markets and used bookstores. Took about two years to find all the 50 books on the list. I read them all.”

Between the literature in the store and those he has stored in his home, Sigwart estimates he has about 20,000 books. Most years, the store has modest returns, usually making just enough to cover his expenses. 

“If it’s a spectacular day and it’s cool and the temperature’s nice, maybe I’ll have 15 people come in, in a day. That’s a big day,” Sigwart said.

When asked if he has room for any more books, Sigwart exclaimed, “No!” before remembering one more space he’d forgotten he’d planned to use.

For those who want to visit Classic Books, the store is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday at 115 N. First Street, DeKalb.

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