Rick Levine knows a good business idea when he hears it. Back in 1986, when Levine was box-office manager for Wisdom Bridge Theatre, coworker Emily Detmer asked him a question that set his entrepreneurial heartstrings a-twanging: “How come Chicago doesn’t have a theatrical bookstore?” Six months later, after surveying a slew of actors, writing a business plan, and learning that bankers will not “loan you money to sell things to people with no money,” Levine and Detmer opened Act I Bookstore at 2633 N. Halsted. They’d picked the low-rent “garden-level” space by plotting the highest concentration of League of Chicago Theatres members on a city map (60614 had about 40) and stocked it with 7,000 used books purchased from a New York store going out of the business. They had new books too, everything paid for with start-up cash borrowed from their families. The store flooded four times in the first year.

Levine and Detmer carted their stock and the black metal bookshelves they’d painted themselves to their next location, 2632 N. Lincoln. There, after realizing their customers were driven by passion or professional urgency and wouldn’t split hairs about price, they phased out the used books and built their business on special orders. “If we didn’t have it in stock,” Levine says, “within a week we’d get it for them.” Then inspiration struck again. Looking for ways to promote the store, Levine dreamed up a quarterly book review. Steppenwolf’s Rondi Reed wrote about an acting book for the first issue; Tom Tresser reviewed a book on theater management; and the newsletter, which Levine dubbed PerformInk, took off. After two or three quarterly issues, he says, “We were asking ourselves, ‘Why doesn’t Chicago have a trade paper?'” Levine enlisted actress Belinda Bremner to dish news from the local casting agents, got non-Equity audition postings from Elayne LeTraunik, who was running an audition hot line, and took PerformInk biweekly, publishing it from a back room in the store. When Detmer left Act I in the early 90s to pursue an academic career, Levine had to go back to full-time store management, and editor Carrie Kaufman took over running the paper. In 1992, with circulation at 6,000, Levine sold it to her.

Meanwhile he was incubating a couple of other ideas. There was the resume service, which had Act I formatting, storing, updating, and duplicating actors’ CVs and trimming them to a size that fit on the back of a head shot, all for a modest fee. It’s still part of the bookstore’s business. Then there was Chicago Plays Inc., a publishing venture dedicated mostly to putting out the work of local playwrights. “We published a Jeffrey Sweet play, a couple of things from Annoyance Theatre, Belinda Bremner’s book Acting in Chicago, and The Actor’s Little Instruction Book”–maybe 20 plays and other books in all, Levine says, before the effort succumbed to a fatal lack of funding and his own distraction.

By 1994 it looked to Levine like the bookstore was in a holding pattern, topping out in the Chicago market, but his father-in-law had a small publishing company and was ready to retire. Levine went to work there on a trial basis. Four years later, after buying his father-in-law out, he was sole owner of Made to Measure magazine, the “bible of the uniform industry.” In 1995 Made to Measure’s production manager introduced Levine to the Internet. By early ’96 the company had launched an on-line database for the apparel industry and was trying to sell Web-site design to apparel-industry suppliers. “Great idea, wrong industry,” Levine says. “It didn’t do what we dreamed it would. But we got our feet wet.” Levine and the production manager spun off their Web services as xBx Channel Media and wound up building sites for companies like Motorola and Tiger Electronics (including the Web site for Furby). It was a great ride until the dot-com bust hit and there was only enough business left for one partner.

While Levine was busy with xBx, playwright and longtime Act I employee Brian Ness had been running Made to Measure. When Levine returned to the uniform trade paper last year, Ness went back to the bookstore–with an agreement that he’d buy in as an equal partner and they’d grow the business. Since ’97 the store had been located at 2540 N. Lincoln, in a cramped bunker wedged between the Apollo Theater and the el. Their lease ran out in January, and two weeks ago they signed a new one, on a space three blocks south and 50 percent larger, where they’ll be able to hold readings and other events. (Once a funeral parlor, it’s allegedly the spot where they laid out John Dillinger.) Ness and three other full-time employees will run the store; Levine, working from home, will apply what he learned at xBx to the store’s Internet site (act1bookstore.com), which he’s built into a 22,000-title giant–the largest theatrical bookstore on the Web. The Internet now accounts for about 5 percent of Act I’s business; Levine expects to take it to 25 percent or more. Act I has little competition on the Web (mainly from one store in New York and one in London) and, since the demise of Scenes (a combination theatrical bookstore and coffee shop) in the 90s, none in town. Though Borders and Barnes & Noble have been the ruination of most small dealers–“There were seven bookstores on Lincoln Avenue when we first came there,” Levine says; “now there are two, Powell’s and us”–he says the big chains, which often hire actors as salespeople, actually send customers his way.

In Chicago, Levine and Ness are aiming for something like what they see at Transitions Bookplace. No acting classes–they don’t want to compete with the schools they’ve cultivated as friends–but a hub of activities that would appeal to the theater hopefuls who are their primary customers: a writers’ group, a new-plays discussion, maybe a Shakespeare study club doing a play a week for a year. And just recently Levine noticed something else. Theater companies are using Act I as a library for sides (portions of scripts), stashing audition material there. “Actors are sitting around and reading in our store all day.” When Levine learned that as many as a dozen companies have sides there on any given day, the entrepreneur in him said, “OK, how long have we been doing this for free? We’ll set up chairs, an automated phone system, make it a service. Time to start charging.”

Act I opens in its new space, at 2221 N. Lincoln, on Friday, February 28.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.