Sparking Community, Igniting Knowledge

by Liz Scoville

Lit. on Fire is more than a used bookstore… it’s a center for community discussion and connection.

Walking into Lit. on Fire Used Books in the Sunbeam Building, one is greeted with shelf after shelf of paperbound escapes. A chalkboard wall, full of colorful drawings and scribbled poetry, boldly proclaims the presence of patrons past. Near the front door, children have their own creative space for beanbag lounging, learning and reading; in the back room, a trio of blue couches sits horseshoe-style, silently inviting visitors to gather and discuss the latest novel or open mic. The walls are a comforting indigo, lined with books of all sizes and subject matter, from Shakespearean plays to sci-fi adventures to eccentric works of nonfiction.

This communal atmosphere and abundant variety are exactly what Jessica Stephenson had in mind when she opened Lit. on Fire in Peoria’s West Main neighborhood in the summer of 2015. And with a loyal, growing clientele, her shop has transformed into a hotbed of inspiration and imagination in the heart of the city.

A World Opens Up
“I’ve always loved reading,” Stephenson says. “When I was a kid, I read a lot of fantasy stuff, and that really opened up a world of literature for me. I got into Shakespeare, poetry… I started writing myself. It’s always been a part of me.”

Having eloquently read excerpts of Romeo & Juliet to her family around the age of six, Stephenson found herself obsessed with poetry, reciting sonnets to herself and delving into the works of Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe and Lord Tennyson. In her teenage years, she immersed herself in fantasy, mythology and Choose Your Own Adventure books, while The Hobbit quickly became her favorite novel of all time.

As Stephenson developed her passion for reading, her writing talents were also ignited. Beginning at age 12, she poured her ideas for fantasy and romantic poetry onto paper, her confessional verse drawing comparisons to the poet Anne Sexton. As a young adult, she spent the better part of eight years moderating Poetry Castle, an online forum for similar-minded writers. Today, her writing continues to serve as a creative escape. When her laptop was stolen last year, she felt a large part of her was taken with it—such is the devotion she feels to her written compositions.

“Moving forward… is difficult because I am mourning the loss of a huge part of me,” she explains. “I find that writing poetry is like exorcising demons—it is a purge, an expression of the darkest and most hidden parts of the self that are screaming for release… Writing brings me self-preservation [and] expression... I think it gives voice to inner multitudes that are not meant to be understood in full.”

An Experienced Eye
Naturally, Stephenson’s passion for the written word drove her to pursue ways to make a living doing what she loves. She found a home in a large used bookstore, where she continued to expand her knowledge, filling her brain with references and recommendations for patrons of all tastes and preferences. “There were over 120,000 books [in that store],” she adds, “and at some point in my life, I had touched every single one of them.”

For several years, Stephenson learned the ins and outs of managing a bookstore, immersed in texts of all shapes and sizes. Having become well acquainted with trending topics and popular authors, she eventually decided to set out on her own. Scouring book sales and online retailers, she began building her opening stock, using her experienced eye to quickly determine which items would fit best in her budding collection. “I know what’s interesting—I know it’s something people will want, or I take a gamble,” she explains. “I’ve been working with books for so long, it’s really second-nature for me.”

After handling all the paperwork and legal issues involved with opening a business, Stephenson had to find a place to set up shop. When she came across an open space at Studios on Sheridan in the Sunbeam Building—home to nearly two dozen artists and small retailers—she jumped at the opportunity. Since opening with an inventory of 2,000 to 3,000 books, Stephenson has expanded Lit. on Fire (a play on words, as well as an homage to the Ray Bradbury classic, Fahrenheit 451) into an adjacent studio, allowing room for lounging sofas and more shelves for her stock of books—now 8,000 strong.

“I’d say it’s been going fantastically,” she declares. “It’s been paying for itself since day one.”

Building a Destination
One of Stephenson's top goals is to provide a welcoming space for individuals of all backgrounds and beliefs. “I wanted to focus on bringing the community together, and having events that bring people together from different walks of life—who maybe never would have mingled with each other in the first place. It’s become a destination spot, rather than just a store.”

Prominent among her community-building efforts is the “Get Lit.” open mic, which allows artists to share their talents in song, poetry and spoken word. Recently, the monthly series expanded to include book signings and special appearances by local authors. “It is a really diverse opportunity, both for myself and for the author, to promote themselves with a mixed crowd,” Stephenson notes. In addition, she has hosted a number of literary-inspired movie and television screenings, with a projector and screen in the back room providing comfortable quarters for viewing and discussion. She also keeps in touch with the music scene: in January, she brought in Kristen Ford, a one-woman indie rock act from Nashville, to perform for First Friday patrons.

When her shop isn’t buzzing with activity, Stephenson manages an ongoing “honor-system” exchange, where teachers on tight budgets can buy children’s books at reduced rates, and she donates unsold books to charities, schools and Little Free Libraries. She also works on a literary magazine (also called Get Lit.), which is full of poetry, short stories, photography and artwork from local artists—the cover of which she intricately collages by hand. Giving back to her community, Stephenson says, is one way she remains an active contributor to a neighborhood she’s always loved.

“I think my personality bleeds into the business, and my personality fits into the neighborhood,” she notes. “There’s something really magical about the revitalization of this area, and I wanted to be a part of that because I knew it would be a good match.”

Keeping It Balanced
Like any new business, Lit. on Fire has presented some unique challenges as it grows. As a family-focused entrepreneur—with a partner and young son at home—as well as a female business owner, earning respect has at times been an uphill climb. “I do occasionally get some adversity from people thinking I’m ‘just the shop keep,’” she explains. “And I have some other business owners that have not taken me seriously, [but] I try to let it go… I know what I’m doing. I’ve done this before—it’s a sixth sense.”

After a year and a half of open doors, her biggest obstacle is finding unique ways to market the shop with limited resources. “The hard part is getting the word out on a dime budget,” she notes. “I just assume that the best thing to do is to keep being awesome, and opportunities will come along.”

Despite the challenges of slowly growing her own small store, Stephenson remains in love with her work and optimistic for the future. Having earned an associate’s degree from Illinois Central College, she hopes to eventually return to school to get her bachelor’s degree in social work, and provide support for domestic abuse victims and survivors. In the meantime, she continues to pursue her passion for literature and her community, positioning her store as a hub of creativity and acceptance for all.

“It’s a place where people go to meet other people and have conversations about the things they’re passionate about,” she adds. “And that really is what makes it for me.” a&s

Lit. on Fire Used Books is located inside Studios on Sheridan at the Sunbeam Building, 929 N. Sheridan Road in Peoria. The shop is open Tuesday through Friday, noon to 5pm; Saturday, 11am to 5pm; and evenings on First Fridays. For more information, call (309) 634-5383 or visit facebook.com/litonfireusedbooks.

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