Barbara’s Weakest Link

At one time it seemed like Lakeview had a bookstore on every corner–some trafficking in used books, some in new. But with the growing number of superstores in the neighborhood–Crown, Borders, and Barnes & Noble all have stores within walking distance of each other–independent booksellers are facing tough times.

Barbara’s Bookstore looks like it may be ready to bail out of the neighborhood, where it’s been a presence for more than 20 years. Within the last two weeks, a large sign with the word “available” appeared above Barbara’s 6,000-square-foot store at 3130 N. Broadway. A real estate agent reached at the number posted on the sign said that the Barbara’s store could be available in 60 days if a suitable offer were made to lease the space. The agent also indicated that the entire building, which houses a furniture store and a Chinese restaurant as well as Barbara’s, was for sale for approximately $1 million.

Asked about the fate of his store on Broadway, Don Barliant, the Santa Fe-based owner of Barbara’s, initially insisted that he intends to hold on to the store for four more years. “It is my present intention to carry the store to the end of its lease,” said Barliant, pointing out that sales for the last three months at the Lakeview location were up 8 percent over the same period a year ago. Barbara’s also operates stores on Wells Street, Navy Pier, and in Oak Park; the chain’s negotiating to open a small outlet in the Sears Tower.

When pressed further, Barliant conceded he would consider a buyout of his lease. Glenn Felner, an owner of the building on Broadway, says he discussed a lease buyout with Barliant several weeks ago, at which time Barliant indicated he would be willing to consider it. “Don is a businessman,” Felner says.

Talk of Barbara’s leaving Lakeview comes about a year after its chief buyer, Pat Peterson, left the chain. Peterson was an equity partner in the company as well as one of the city’s most respected booksellers. But she and her family moved downstate and left Barbara’s in the hands of new management. Since Peterson’s departure, Barliant says, Barbara’s has made a number of changes to remain competitive at its Lakeview location. “We’ve analyzed the inventory in the store section by section and moved things around, and we are providing the neighborhood with what it needs, primarily good service.”

But Unabridged Books owner Ed Devereux says it’s impossible to be a bookseller in the Lakeview area and not feel the customer drain. “We took a large hit when the superstores first opened,” says Devereux, “but things have leveled off now, and if we have a dip in sales in a given month, it’s usually only about 1 percent.” Despite the difficult situation, Devereux’s landlord has made no concessions.

“My rent just went up to $6,000 from $5,700 a month, so we have to watch our expenses very carefully,” he says. Devereux admits he wouldn’t mind moving a little farther away from the giants. “My fantasy is to buy a place on Halsted north of Addison and move my store over there.”

Things OK at MCA

Attendance at the new Museum of Contemporary Art has been unpredictable since its opening on July 2, with the number of daily visitors ranging between 800 and 3,000. But MCA spokeswoman Maureen King says, “These numbers are above what we had projected.” The most encouraging news so far is the number of new MCA memberships. When the museum closed down operations on Ontario Street last February, it had 3,400 members. The tally now stands at 10,000, according to King. That puts the museum nearly a year ahead of its projections. Meanwhile, the MCA has launched First Fridays, its own monthly cocktail event for young adults based on the Art Institute’s successful After Hours soirees. First Fridays debuted July 5, during a holiday weekend, and attracted more than 700 people, says King. An even larger turnout is expected August 2, when Brigid Murphy brings her Orchid Show persona, Milly May Smithy, to the next First Fridays offering.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photograph of 2 terriers in front of Barbara’s Bookstore, by Armando Villa.