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If you stop by Kate the Great’s Book Emporium in Edgewater expecting to find a self-assured woman by the name of Kate, you’ll probably be disappointed. You’ll undoubtedly meet Jeanine Vaughn or Claire Cooney, the used-book store’s two employees. And you might meet a woman who’ll tell you her name is Ginger Roscoe.

“I can tell you two versions, and you can write whatever you want,” says Cooney, when asked where the store’s name came from. One version is that she knew Catherine the Great had been a patron of the arts, and she figured that folks who knew of the salacious myths surrounding the Russian empress (she was rumored to have had sex with horses) would be intrigued. The other version is that she saw it as a tribute to her boss and friend Ginger Roscoe, whose name is really Katie Redding–“this young, beautiful entrepreneur, this artist with a dream. I thought people would be proud of her. But she got so embarrassed.” Cooney eventually persuaded Redding that, like the name of another used-book store nearby, Armadillo’s Pillow, Kate the Great’s had mnemonic appeal. Vaughn’s roommate sketched the logo for the store: a coyly smiling Catherine the Great rising from an open book.

Redding and Cooney started out as fellow part-timers at Redding’s mother’s used-book store in Palatine, Top Shelf Books, which is in a run-of-the-mill strip mall. On slow days the two women would look for vintage jewelry online, but that ended when Redding took over the business in 2002.

Cooney started dreaming out loud about how cool it would be if they had a location in the city, and Redding agreed. “The idea of starting something new from scratch really appealed to me,” she says. She liked the idea of a cozy place without carpeting, a place that could double as a gallery for artwork, including her own sculpture. Cooney, an aspiring writer in Columbia’s fiction program, added her vision of a space where writing groups and emerging playwrights could meet and hold events. Last fall the two drove around the north side at night, taking down the numbers on for rent signs.

They fell for a storefront at 5550 N. Broadway, with its silver tin ceiling, good lighting, and sibling landlords named Electra and Orestes. The first thing they did was rip up the carpeting. Every night after work Redding drove over with stacks of lumber she and her boyfriend had cut, and then they and Cooney built shelves.

Kate the Great’s opened in late September. Within a couple weeks Cooney had a writing group, mostly Columbia students, meeting there on Saturday nights, and Vaughn, who’s also in Columbia’s fiction program, was soon putting together the Mighty Alliance Solo Show, an evening of solo performances featuring local actors and a few from the Immediacy Theatre Project in Saint Louis.

Kate the Great’s stock comes from Top Shelf–a wide selection that includes a lot of fiction and children’s books. Since Redding won’t be buying books at the new store or offering store credit, she decided to price all the books a few bucks cheaper than they’d be in Palatine: paperbacks generally go for $3 to $6, hardbacks for $4 to $7.

Neighbors have told Cooney they’ve been waiting for a bookstore to open in Edgewater for nearly a decade. “I get that at least three times a day,” she says. “They say it as if they’re the first person saying it, but I really like hearing it.”

Actually, there are four other bookstores within a mile: Women & Children First, Armadillo’s Pillow, Left of Center, and a Borders. Redding doesn’t see them as competition. She hopes they’re all part of what will become known as a book district. The way she figures it, “If Borders has all sorts of marketing people working for them, and they thought it was a good spot to put a bookstore, you know–they know.”

Cooney adds, “We’re like the remora on the shark’s back.”

Mighty Alliance Solo Show

When: Sat 11/19, 8 PM

Where: Kate the Great’s, 5550 N. Broadway

Price: Donations accepted

Info: 773-561-1932

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.