Bookstores Turn Up the Heat

A brutal turf war has broken out among some of the city’s biggest booksellers. Nowhere is the battle more evident than at Kroch’s & Brentano’s. Long considered the somewhat sleepy hometown giant, Kroch’s is sleeping no more. In an effort to win back customers from the growing number of aggressive book discounters in the Chicago market, Kroch’s last month resorted to some dramatic discounting and promotional tactics of its own, including New York Times best-sellers at 40 percent off list price, a frequent-buyer program, and a promise to match any discount advertised by another bookseller. “In order to bring customers into our stores,” notes Kroch’s president William Rickman, “we realized we had to compete on price.” Kroch’s is also using some unusual marketing ploys to get the word out about its new policies. Ads have gone up at a number of subway stops around the city, and bus boards (a gambit rarely employed by local bookstores) have appeared touting Kroch’s book discounts. “They [the bus boards] are very expensive,” notes Barbara’s Bookstores part owner Pat Peterson, who says she had investigated their cost and nixed using them.

While Kroch’s trolls for new customers, booksellers are also watching the swanky and large Waterstone’s on North Michigan to see what ploys it comes up with to entice customers after a less than spectacular debut last fall. Though the London-based chain arrived here with an antidiscounting bias, it recently abandoned that policy in a big way for a several-day storewide discount sale, a move that some sources say was meant to improve cash flow.

On the north side, bookseller attention is focused on Diversey between Clark and Halsted, where a Crown superstore is under construction just steps from the Barnes & Noble outlet that opened last summer. Sources say traffic has picked up in the Barnes & Noble store in recent months, but few booksellers believe two big discount-oriented stores can profitably divvy up the neighborhood book-buying market. Rickman says, “There has to be some fallout.”

But whatever happens to Barnes & Noble and Crown, locally owned neighborhood stores such as Barbara’s and Unabridged are likely to feel the most pressure. After months of steering clear of the fray, Peterson last week sounded as if she was reluctantly preparing to lessen the impact that superstores and now Kroch’s & Brentano’s are having on her business. She says, “Internally we are considering a number of options.” She declined to be more specific, except to say that she believes service will remain a key factor in her stores’ ability to survive.

Designing Closet Case as a Standout

Local advertising copywriter Robert Rodi, author of Fag Hag, has written another novel, called Closet Case, set to be published next month by Dutton. And as it did with the boldly colored and lettered cover for Fag Hag, Dutton has come up with a catchy jacket design for Rodi’s new work, about an ad agency executive desperate to conceal his homosexuality from his office colleagues. The book’s jacket features the title in small, scrawled letters on a solid white background. Rodi notes that such a self-effacing approach goes against the grain of book-jacket design, and because of that he hopes Closet Case will stand out. “Like a gay closet case in real life,” says Rodi, “the book’s title in the jacket design doesn’t want to call attention to itself.” Rodi’s new tome arrives at a time when there seems to be a slump in the amount of quality gay fiction being published. But Rodi believes it is a temporary slowdown. “I think this is only a dry spell,” he explains. “In reality the only place gay people can get a reflection of their lives is in bookstores. Television and the other media still aren’t dealing much with gay issues.”

Will Gurney Get to Broadway?

Will A.R. Gurney’s highly theatrical comedy The Fourth Wall turn into a long-run hit at the Briar Street Theatre? And will it wind up in New York either on or off-Broadway? The jury is still out on both questions. Though the show has received several favorable notices and presumably could only benefit from stars George Segal and Betty Buckley in its cast, it still has had to work at building an audience. Business has been strong on weekends, sources say, but slow to materialize midweek, an age-old problem in Chicago. One of

the show’s producers, Norman Rubenstein, readily admits his interest in finding a New York berth for the show. Several Big Apple producers have already flown in to see it, and representatives from the Nederlander Organization, which operates several Broadway houses, were due in late this week. Rubenstein notes, “We’re not going to make any decisions about a New York production until we see what the Nederlanders say.” Though Gurney has penned several well-received plays that were produced off-Broadway, including The Cocktail Hour and The Dining Room, his work has never been mounted in a Broadway house. Should Rubenstein and his partners succeed in cutting a New York deal, the Briar Street cast would go to New York and new actors would be hired for the ongoing Chicago production.

Lyric Priorities

Last week the Lyric Opera of Chicago officially announced it had bought the Civic Opera House and Civic Theatre, and said it will soon begin turning the theater into backstage storage space for the opera house; other improvements are also planned. The building acquisition and renovations are expected to cost around $100 million altogether. The announcement comes on the heels of news that the opera company was canceling a new Barenboim-conducted production of Wozzeck, originally scheduled for next season, because of higher-than-expected costs to mount it. Strange, isn’t it, that the company can find $100 million for a building while lacking funds for the operas to go in it?

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