Independent Bookstores Still Standing–and Expanding

Is the neighborhood bookstore out of the woods? The giant national chains and the deep discounters invaded Chicago with a vengeance during the 1980s, intending to transform the bookselling business. But Waldenbooks and B. Dalton and Crown did not succeed in killing off the local independent bookseller. “We were really afraid in the early 1980s,” admits Pat Peterson, co-owner of Barbara’s Bookstores, “but we had tenacity and waited it out.” And now, judging from the just-completed expansion of Barbara’s, independent bookstores are prospering. After moving into a glistening new flagship store at 1350 N. Wells in the summer of 1989, Barbara’s last spring opened a new store in Oak Park, expanding their floor space there by nearly two and a half times. Then late last month Barbara’s quietly moved into a new store on Broadway, again expanding floor space from 2,700 square feet at the old address (2907 N. Broadway) to 4,200 square feet at 3130 N. Broadway. Finally, in what Peterson calls “the wild card” of the expansion program, Barbara’s has opened a new 4,000-square-foot store in the 1800 N. Clybourn mall, which also houses Remains Theatre and a number of other niche retailers. Though the Clybourn mall has been slow to find its market, Peterson believes the crowds eventually will discover it. “The big calling card at 1800 N. Clybourn is access,” she says, in reference to its parking lot and location near the Kennedy Expressway.

The look of Barbara’s new stores reflects renewed confidence in the company’s approach to bookselling. The Broadway store, for instance, has a floor-to-ceiling glass front that allows the interior to be seen easily from the street; a neon window sign simply says “read.” Inside, attractive wood shelving along wide aisles is low enough so customers can see over instead of feeling hemmed in and claustrophobic. And the displays invite browsing. Peterson says she and partner Dan Barliant, who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, expanded because they realized independent booksellers were in fact going to prosper in the decade ahead. “People like to go places where they can find books that interest them,” says Peterson, “and they want the service.” Peterson has discovered that Barbara’s can happily coexist with the likes of Waldenbooks and Crown. “The big chains have helped expand the market for books,” she says. “We all serve a certain segment of the marketplace.” Kroch’s and Brentano’s recently opened a store just up the street from Barbara’s new outlet on Clybourn, and Peterson welcomes them, too. “We refer people to Kroch’s all the time. They can’t be beat for their selection of technical and professional books.” The increased space at the new stores has enabled Barbara’s to expand some of their special departments, notably children’s books and religion and philosophy.

Still, Peterson concedes that not all is rosy these days in the book business. After a period of heavy losses, publishers are cutting back. “They’ve been publishing too much for too long,” says Peterson. “I don’t think we’re going to see them jumping on the bandwagon every time a celebrity wants to write a biography.” And Peterson worries about dramatic increases in the price of backlist books, a staple at Barbara’s. A classic by William Faulkner that used to retail for $4.95, for instance, now goes for $8.95.

Theater League Closing in on New Head

The search committee of the League of Chicago Theatres has narrowed the list of candidates it will consider to replace executive director Diane Olmen, who departs October 31. League president Mary Badger says the committee has nine candidates in whom it is still interested, although it may not interview all nine. Five are out-of-towners and four are from the Chicago area. Badger still hopes to have a new executive director in place by Thanksgiving, though that may not be a realistic date if the chosen candidate has to relocate. Former Illinois Film Office director Lucy Salenger’s interest in the position apparently has intensified since she was first mentioned as a possible candidate several weeks ago.

Civic Center Dance Show Will Go On

The 1991 Civic Center for Performing Arts Spring Festival of Dance will go on as promised, but more of the companies appearing in next years event will be self-sponsored or presented under the aegis of an organization other than the Civic Center, which no longer wants to bear all the cost of any shortfall in ticket sales. American Ballet Theatre will self-present, as will the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre. The Joffrey Ballet will return to the Civic Opera House as part of the spring festival, but the Auditorium Theatre will act as producer. The Civic Center itself will present the return of the popular ISO and the Bobs, along with the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre and the Hubbard Street Dance Company. (The spring 1991 dates will be Hubbard Street’s first in Chicago since the 1990 spring festival. The troupe had planned to play Ravinia last summer but was dumped to make room for the Chicago-area premiere of the Miami Ballet.) Civic Center execs are experimenting this year with a starker, more straightforward ticket brochure, scheduled to go into the mail in mid-November. Brochures for previous festivals tended to confuse would-be ticket buyers with busy layouts and complex charts of ticket options.

Dancing for Dollars

It’s still too early to tell who will be the biggest beneficiary of an upcoming evening of contemporary dance starring Mikhail Baryshnikov. The dance event choreographed by Mark Morris and slated for November 19 at the Arie Crown Theatre is intended to benefit both the Auditorium Theatre, cosponsor of the event, and the MoMing Dance & Arts Center, which initially had tried to bring in Baryshnikov on its own to raise funds to buy its home at 1034 W. Barry. Benefactors who shell out $225 or $175 for tickets will be able to specify which organization they want to receive the money. A MoMing spokeswoman said the dance center had raised about $35,000 before the Baryshnikov benefit was scheduled–enough to make a down payment on the Barry Street building.

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