Bookstores Feel the Pinch

London-based Waterstone’s Booksellers has been going through a period of adjustment since it opened its 21,000-square-foot Chicago branch at 840 N. Michigan in early November. Though company founder Tim Waterstone has vigorously opposed book discounting on the record, it did not take long for the management of Waterstone’s Chicago store to join the crowd of local book outlets, including Kroch’s & Brentano’s, Barnes & Noble, Crown Booksellers, Border’s, and Waldenbooks, that actively mark down best-sellers and numerous other titles to lure customers. Visitors to Waterstone’s now find New York Times best-sellers prominently discounted 30 percent. Before Christmas the store also discounted selected titles from its catalog of recommended books. A Waterstone’s employee says, “Discounting will be ongoing.”

The store’s location in a new complex at the corner of Michigan and Chestnut has also proved problematic. The entrance to Waterstone’s is hidden away on Chestnut while Escada, a high-priced women’s clothing store that has yet to open, occupies the corner on Michigan. A spokeswoman said Waterstone’s employed actors before Christmas to distribute discount coupons on Michigan to announce the store was open. “The corner was rather dead looking,” she notes, and it could remain so for a while. Escada has postponed its opening until summer and is likely to share its space with another retailer, a source indicated.

Book-industry sources maintain that the giant Waterstone’s outlet has yet to attain the high traffic volume it might have hoped for in its plush three-story digs. But store manager Robert Nichols insists the store met its pre-Christmas business projections even as it continues to fine-tune operations. The highly touted in-store readings by noted authors won’t go into high gear until March, says Nichols, and the policy of Chicago store personnel choosing the local inventory is only now going into effect. Staff from the Boston store selected the original Chicago inventory.

Meanwhile in the Loop the venerable Chicago-based Kroch’s & Bren-tano’s is feeling the competitive heat from the recent opening of a Crown’s superstore just a couple of doors down from Kroch’s flagship location at 29 S. Wabash. “Clearly we are feeling the pinch,” admits Kroch’s president William Rickman, “and it would be naive of me to suggest otherwise.” Rickman says the Crown’s superstore is adversely affecting what already was a slower-than-usual January for the giant chain. “I think we’re seeing the effects now of a robust pre-Christmas selling period,” explains Rickman. “Customers were buying more then so they are cutting back now.”

Ballet Chicago’s New Manager Faces a Hard Season

Last Friday Ballet Chicago rather quietly named John Schmitz to fill the permanent post of general manager. Schmitz replaces former managing director Randall Green, who resigned last summer to pursue other opportunities. Prior to this promotion Schmitz had served as the company’s development director, a job he will continue to handle until he hires a replacement.

Schmitz says his immediate goal with the company is “to make it work.” Since emerging from the ashes of Maria Tallchief’s Chicago City Ballet in 1987, the troupe has struggled valiantly to establish itself financially and artistically, and to hear Schmitz talk the battle remains as tough as ever. The troupe thus far has lined up only four weeks of tour dates this year, with roughly the same number of weeks slated for performances in and around Chicago. “A lot of presenters still are reluctant to book the troupe because of problems surrounding the ugly demise of Chicago City Ballet,” notes Schmitz, who also says the company needs a full-length ballet in its repertoire to command higher fees on the road. To that end Ballet Chicago is developing Hansel and Gretel to premiere in 1994. With Lyric Opera likely to take control of the Civic Opera House and Civic Theatre this summer, Ballet Chicago also faces what Schmitz terms a “venue problem.” A consortium of dance organizations, including Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre, and Ballet Chicago, has been meeting with Civic Stages executives who produced the Spring Festival of Dance in years past to see if some version of that event can continue after the 1993 edition. Among the venues discussed for such future festivals is the Shubert Theatre. According to Schmitz, Ballet Chicago needs to raise more than $1.4 million this year in addition to box-office revenue to meet its financial needs.

Green, by the way, wound up at Elgin Community College, where he is manager of a new 600-seat theater, a black-box space, and an art gallery now under construction.

Larry Sloan’s Self-Demotion

Add Remains artistic director Larry Sloan to the list of people exiting top management posts at our city’s resident theater companies. Earlier this week Sloan said he will step down to the consulting position of associate artistic director on July 1. “Theaters are notoriously difficult places to run, and they sap a lot of energy,” notes Sloan, who like the departing Arnold Aprill at City Lit seems to have been stung by harsh critical response to some of his artistic output, most recently a poorly received revival of the musical Of Thee I Sing. A search is under way for Sloan’s successor, with an announcement expected by April 1.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.