Booksellers Beware: Here Comes Barnes & Noble

Chicago booksellers are bracing for what may be the most telling battle yet in a war that increasingly pits national chains against aggressive but besieged independents.

By the end of the month New York-based Barnes & Noble expects to open its first Chicago “superstore” at 659 W. Diversey. According to company spokeswoman Donna Passannante, an Evanston store is scheduled to open in mid-August just steps from a large Kroch’s & Brentano’s, and a Northbrook outlet could open as early as September.

Barnes & Noble has been a major player in the New York City area since 1932, and the company includes B. Dalton Bookseller among its subsidiaries. Thus far most of its superstores–featuring discounts and huge selections–have been introduced in suburbs of major markets. The first appeared outside Minneapolis in Roseville, an area Passannante describes as one of the hottest book markets in the country. Others have opened in suburban Cincinnati, in Danbury and Hartford, Connecticut, and on Long Island. Barnes & Noble fired its first salvo in the Chicago metropolitan market last February with the opening of a superstore in west-suburban Wheaton. But the Diversey store will give the urban crowd their first taste of a bookselling concept the company began introducing nationally in 1990.

Key aspects of the superstore philosophy involve store size, book selection, and pricing. While the typical neighborhood or mall bookseller operates out of 2,500 to 3,000 square feet, a superstore averages between 15,000 and 25,000 square feet. A superstore may stock between 60,000 and 100,000 hardcover and paperback titles and some 1,000 magazines and newspapers, compared to 25,000 book titles and few if any magazines and newspapers in a smaller bookstore.

Like Crown Books, Barnes & Noble discounts every book in the store at least 10 percent and New York Times best-sellers may be marked down an additional 20 percent. That policy may give Crown and its 40 percent markdown on hardcover best-sellers an edge. Aside from discounting prices, the superstore will also boast long hours of 9 AM to 11 PM seven days a week.

The company’s imminent arrival on the north side has some independent booksellers casting a wary glance over their shoulders. “I think that Barnes & Noble is acting in a predatory fashion and that they are out to try and capture the market,” worries Barbara’s Bookstore coowner Pat Peterson, who adds that she has no plans to introduce widespread discounting in her stores. “I can’t afford to,” she says. Chris Kennelly of Unabridged Books notes that revenue is up 40 percent compared to this time last year, but says, “We’re keeping our eyes and ears open.”

Both Kennelly and Peterson have doubts about the superstore’s chances for success. Kennelly estimates the store will have to generate at least $100,000 in weekly sales to survive at its new Diversey location, which he insists will be close to impossible. “The Barnes & Noble store on Diversey must be a destination store for a lot of people in order to survive,” explains Peterson. “Customers have got to be able to get there and park.” Access may not be so easy in a congested neighborhood with limited on-street parking and few garages.

But if the superstore concept catches on in Chicago, the rollout is likely to continue. A fifth Chicago-area store is rumored to be in the works. Other booksellers fear a conversion of the massive B. Dalton outlet at 129 N. Wabash, just a couple of blocks from the Kroch’s flagship store. Barnes & Noble’s Passannante said she had “no confirmation” of that rumor.

Dramatic Advertising

Chicago Suburban Times editor and theater critic Anne Lunde admits to feeling surprised when she recently opened the Sun-Times to discover a quote from her review bannered across the top of an ad for Riverview: A Melodrama With Music, now running at the Goodman Theatre. “I normally don’t get the top of the ad,” says Lunde. Most theater ads, which can be rather formulaic, generally make use of positive blurbs from the Tribune or the Sun-Times. But both papers had panned the production, forcing the Goodman to turn elsewhere for quotable reviews. The ad also featured upbeat comments in a smaller typeface from WGN’s Roy Leonard, this newspaper’s Albert Williams, and WBBM AM’s Sherman Kaplan.

In addition to writing occasional theater notices, Lunde edits three community newspapers in the Suburban Times chain. She’s been writing theater reviews for ten years. Though she enjoyed most of Riverview, Lunde says, she did not like the way the lead characters go “downhill” so fast.

Commons Theatre Sings Its Swan Song

A shining light in the city’s off-Loop theater movement in the mid-1980s, the Commons Theatre formally calls it quits this month, 12 years after opening its doors. A debt totaling “no more than $20,000” did the Commons in, according to founding member Judith Easton, coartistic director along with Ellyn Duncan-Nugent. Much of the insurmountable debt was incurred by the group’s last and perhaps most ambitious production, a 1990 adaptation of Maksim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, which featured a cast of 16 and failed to find an audience. Easton says, “It was a big money loser.” Over the years Commons produced well-received productions of Three Sisters, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy. The ensemble numbered as many as 20 at its peak, says Easton, but it was reduced to 8 when the decision was made to close the books on the company. To help retire its outstanding debt, Commons will sell its remaining assets, including a light board, filing cabinets, props, and costumes, this Saturday and Sunday at the Edgewater Presbyterian Church at 1020 W. Bryn Mawr.

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