A Novel Legacy
How One Accountant and a Barn Changed Hundreds of Lives
February 6, 2023
How, you ask, does a worm farm turn into one of Central Illinois’s most beloved bookstores? Thanks to a few bold ideas and one smart woman, the Old Book Barn has become a staple in the Decatur community.
It all began with Clark Uhler’s attempt at a niche hobby. Uhler had a lot of odd jobs over the years, and one of them was the seemingly trivial idea of owning worms. In 1983, when he decided to use his old barn for the project, he didn’t have any idea how that barn would one day become a new-and-used bookstore, with a stock of over one-quarter million books.
Much to Uhler’s dismay, the whole worm farm business didn’t pan out and Uhler sold the barn, and the boxes he built within it, to Troy Taylor. Taylor, who is the author of the “Haunted Decatur” books, decided to buy this shabby barn 25 years ago, in hopes of turning it into a bookstore.
And his prayers were answered: It was a success.
To a certain degree, that is. If it weren’t for the young accountant who, a few short years later, bought the store off of Taylor, The Old Book Barn would most likely be an unsightly, rotting pile of wood.
This spry young lady was Cheryl Haubner, an accountant who loved books deeply. She started out working in a bookstore when she was just 16 years old, and later on when she became owner of the store, it was her accountant’s mindset that saved it. Haubner had a great business-centric mind, taking every little thing, such as the weather and even local baseball or football games, into account.
“She was just a chart- and-graphs woman, her and her little columns of numbers,” said Sue Burke, an Old Book Barn employee for over 30 years.
When the store was on the brink of financial ruin, Haubner, alongside her husband Larry, were able to get it up and running more efficiently, creating a beautiful business.
“It really was her legacy.” Burke said with a smile. “She loved it, put everything into it. Was the reason it kept going.”
Burke has been working in the Book Barn ever since it opened, and was originally only paid in store credit.
“I had almost $4,000 in credit,” she said.
But by the time Taylor took over, the employees were getting paid in full.
“It was illegal, obviously. You have to pay your staff now. But eventually we just threw them away [the credit] and that was that,” she said.
Both Burke and Christine McCoolum, another employee of over 30 years, are caretakers when they aren’t helping customers find their next adventure.
“Most of our customers are just so sweet,” McCoolum said. “Some of them we’ve known on and off for years. We have some loyal customers coming up to the 20-25 year mark! And their kids are coming, and their grandkids.”
“You hear people all the time say that nobody reads anymore. People read like maniacs. It’s amazing how many people still read books.” Burke chimed in. “Just the other day some kid came in and bought Kafka. Kafka! And for fun.”
It seemed as if Cheryl Haubner’s love of books really spread throughout the community in Decatur. Even throughout the country, as many travelers on vacation will stop by and purchase a book for themselves.
“I love finding books for people, and Christine is the same way. People are so nice to us, because we give them what they want, you know?” Burke gestured to McCoolum, who nodded in agreement.
“But sometimes they get upset if we won’t take their books.” McCoolum commented. “They’ll bring boxes that had been sitting in a garage for years, where mice had been eating them. Lots of mouse droppings. Feathers. There was once a dead bird in one of the boxes.” McCoolum shivered in disgust.
And of course, their senile calico cat garners much love and attention from customers. Bella, almost 17 years old now, was taken into the store pregnant, and soon birthed a litter of 5 kittens. Sadly, the arthritis-plagued cat outlived all her children, and mainly hides behind boxes in the waking hours of the day.
“She’s such a pudgy thing,” McCoolum said, petting Bella and giving her a treat.
The store’s seasonal decorations are also a sight to be seen. Larry Haubner, Cheryl’s husband, takes it upon himself in old, retired age to decorate each wall, hanging lanterns and shiny decorations from the ceiling. Although Burke and McCoolum don’t like him on the ladder much, they know the lively and cozy seasonal decor makes the store quite enchanting.
“He’s old as mud. 80 years old now,” said Burke.
“Mud? Old as dirt. You said mud,” McCoolum corrected her, the two laughing.
Still, Larry continues to climb his ladder — many of the decorations are from his wife’s own design, maintaining her presence in the space.
“Cheryl also was a crossstitcher,” he said.“See that key one? She made that. And all those, as well.”
Displayed in the store are 30 glass frames containing intricately stitched scenery and objects, such as the one containing keys. According to Larry, Cheryl loved to give them away as gifts.
“She was working on one before she died. It never got finished,” Burke said. “She died three years ago, in ‘19.”
What a legacy Cheryl left behind. With the bookstore’s humble beginnings as an envisioned worm farm, all the way to its quarter-million book stock and decades-loyal customers.
Cheryl Haubner, with her keen adoration of books, sharp “accountant’s brain,” and ability to run things efficiently, was able to leave behind a loved and appreciated bookstore for generations to come. Who knows where life will take you: Something as futile as a worm farm could turn into your legacy.