Utah couple ‘sold our house to buy the bank’ and open a bookstore in downtown Belleville

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Fellow bibliophiles and avid readers, the best thing ever is happening: Downtown Belleville is getting a new bookstore.

It gets better. It’s an independent bookstore.

And Belleville Books – as it’s already known – will live in that gorgeous historic bank building at 20 E. Main St., which is now owned by Rob Eckman and Steve Mathews. (More on the building in a later column ….)

What to expect at Belleville Books

Belleville Books will offer a diverse selection of new and used books to readers of all types.

About 25% of the inventory will be new books with 75% consisting of used books, said Eckman.

The bookstore will be a place of knowledge as well as a safe space to read and learn, particularly for minorities, according to Eckman, who identifies as Native American and queer.

Eckman and Mathews want to make books – and knowledge – easily accessible to people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and all others that make up the local community.

The shop will also be enjoyable for bargain hunters and history buffs, including those interested in Belleville’s history.

In addition to the numerous titles that will be stocked, plans include regular storytelling events, author events, poetry slams and book clubs.

The vibe of the store will be rich and secure (like a bank), according to Eckman.

The colors will be dark and rich. Reading spots will have comfy chairs. (I’m pretty sure folks will often find me taking up a seat when the shop opens.) There will be a piano for singalongs with the kids.

Eckman and Mathews are excited to meet local authors and to work with them as well as with local book groups.

And emphasis will be placed on the children.

When the store opens, visitors will find the children’s area front and center.

Well, not center. It’ll be on the left, in an alcove that was added to the old bank and used as a night depository.

The space will be fun and colorful and feature a tree with chandelier crystals hanging from it.

The tree’s trunk will blend into an original column that was partially removed to make space for the night depository. The tree will rise up from the floor and blend into the column above.

Eckman said they will actively partner with local schools and provide storytimes, institutional book sales, book clubs and participate in the area’s Head Start program.

Belleville Books will offer reading materials that are both entertaining and educational.

The main area of the shop will have bookshelves lining both sides. (Wall-to-wall books!)

Young readers will have access to books on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM topics, which will be included in the store’s inventory.

Eckman said they plan to have an Earth Science section that will include samples of rocks and fossils collected in Utah, where the couple lived before moving to Belleville.

They want to give young readers a little hands-on learning experience.

My favorite part (so far) is that the old bank vault will house the Art & Architecture section.

A lot of work is needed to get the building ready for the store. Much of it is cosmetic.

They’re taking things “one day at a time,” said Mathews. “It’s a big project. It’s been fun.”

Eckman said Belleville Books will be open by Father’s Day.

Nighttime view of the old Belleville Savings Bank building at 20 E. Main St. in downtown Belleville

A life-changing move

Eckman and Mathews are new to Belleville, having just moved here from Salt Lake City, Utah.

Their move wasn’t a long-term plan; they only started looking at moving to Belleville in October.

The biggest reason for the move to Belleville is to be near family. Their son was stationed at Scott AFB and lives in Mascoutah with his family, which includes three kids.

During a visit, Eckman and Mathews spent some time in downtown Belleville.

“I fell in love with the architecture here in Belleville,” said Mathews, who has a masters degree in interior design and some educational background in architecture.

When they saw the building at 20 E. Main St., it really got their attention, reminding them of another bookstore they visited in Victoria, British Columbia.

Munro’s Books was established in 1963 by Jim Munro and his first wife, writer Alice Munro. The business moved twice, once in 1979 and again in 1984, where it remains today.

Munro’s is located in an old bank building, which was designed for the Royal Bank of Canada in 1909.

Its facade is similar to the old bank building at 20 E. Main St.

Opening Belleville Books is “almost divinely inspired,” said Mathews. “We changed our whole life” to do this.

“We sold our house [in Utah] to buy the bank,” said Eckman.

A bookish history

The couple moved here and closed on the old bank at the end of January.

Mathews recently started working as a stylist at Hollywood Hair in Shiloh, and he hears talk about the goings on in the community.

In fact, word of Belleville Books is already making the rounds.

“We’re overjoyed to see an independent book store come back to Belleville!” stated a Jan. 31 post on the Top Of The Hill Community Association – Belleville, Illinois Facebook page.

Belleville has seen independent bookstores come and go over the years.

There was The Bookworm, which moved to 4711 W. Main St. in Belleville from Fairview Heights when the business was purchased by Helen Costello and Janette Powell in August 1995.

Costello later became the sole owner and closed the shop in early 2012.

Then there was The Booktrader (1602 W. Main St.), which was originally known as The Bookworm.

The Booktrader sold used paperbacks and operated under different owners for more than 40 years before closing around two years ago.

But it’s been 26 years since a bookstore was located downtown.

Isom Books was located at 13 S. Jackson St., tucked behind the Belleville Public Library.

Owned by local artist Ron Isom, this shop offered a wide variety of books.

Isom Books closed in early 1998, and the building was torn down in July that year.

Eckman is not new to independent bookstores.

He previously worked at King’s English Bookshop, an independent, neighborhood bookstore established in 1977 in Salt Lake City.

He started there in 2005, working one day a week as a storyteller. He did this until he was promoted in 2013 as the shop’s marketing director. Eight years later he was the shop’s general manager.

“He was the face of the bookstore,” said Mathews.

Mathews and Eckman have a lot of ideas for Belleville Books, and as with any great indie bookstore, being involved in the community is a big part of it.

For the bookstore’s grand opening, they plan to host a 5K run called “A Run on the Bank.” The entry fees will be used to get more books for children.

They want to be involved in all of the festivals and engaged with everything that happens in downtown Belleville.

Eckman also has experience in hospitality and was once a community relations manager and trainer for Barnes & Noble.

He’s a member of the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and has many contacts in the publishing industry.

Eckman said that Belleville Books will be Illinois’ farthest south independent bookstore from Fairview Heights to Carbondale.

He feels that independent bookstores are better than the big box stores in that owners and staff know and love books.

They can talk about the books and can recommend the books. They really know the books.

Independent bookstores keep growing, said Eckman. There’s no reason to believe it’ll slow down.

Every town needs a bookstore, he said.

BND Belleville Bookstore Clippings by Jennifer Green on Scribd