Kroch’s Moves to Used Books

In what may be the most radical shift yet in its traditional sales policy, Kroch’s & Brentano’s last week began buying and selling used books at its Clybourn Avenue store, one of the chain’s nine remaining outlets. If successful, the used-books program could be expanded to other Kroch’s locations, which also will continue to sell new books and greeting cards. CEO William Rickman says the new tactic is one more attempt at differentiating Kroch’s from the giant, well-financed superstore chains such as Crown Books, Borders, and Barnes & Noble, which have invaded the Chicago area with a vengeance over the past couple of years. “We’re going to watch [the used-books department and see what happens],” explains Rickman. “I think this kind of program makes sense in a community-oriented bookstore like ours.” Other local independent booksellers reacted with something approaching stunned disbelief at the news that Kroch’s is entering the used-book business. “It’s pathetic,” snapped one who seems to believe that the sale of new and used books should not be conducted in the same store.

Rickman says he got the idea from Mike Powell, head of the successful Powell’s bookstore chain, which specializes in buying and selling used books. The Portland, Oregon-based Powell’s operates several stores on the west coast as well as three in Chicago. The key to success in the used-book business, according to Rickman, is knowing which books to buy: “It’s important to be selective.” If in-demand used books are in stock it can be a profitable enterprise; used books are typically marked up 100 percent. Customers who bring in used books may receive cash or store credit at Kroch’s. To help ensure that the used-books division was properly launched, Rickman sent the manager in charge of the department to Powell’s for training.

News of Kroch’s foray into used books comes in the wake of the company’s sale to Businesship International, a Florida company that runs entrepreneur-training programs and an Islamic gift business. Former owner Carl Kroch had just completed buying the company back from its employees this fall, quietly investing a whopping $7.1 million over the last two years to help pay off the company’s massive debts to publishers. The new owners will retain the company’s present management.

Borders Moves to Michigan Avenue

Meanwhile, rumors were confirmed last week that the K-mart-owned Borders chain will open a three-floor superstore on North Michigan Avenue in late 1994 on the former site of I. Magnin, just around the corner from the tony Waterstone’s. “Borders has been searching for an appropriate Michigan Avenue location for several years,” says Fred Carr, manager of the chain’s Oak Brook store. Observes Kroch’s William Rickman of what is certain to turn into a tough turf battle: “I don’t pretend to understand that very aggressive approach to doing business that these big chains are demonstrating.”

The three-story Waterstone’s, which opened a little more than a year ago, has made numerous adjustments in its sales strategy since then to compete more effectively with the high-powered book discounters, one of whom now will be Waterstone’s neighbor. Though Waterstone’s executives initially pooh-poohed the notion of book discounting, the store now runs regular sales and offers 30-percent discounts on New York Times best-sellers. Privately some Waterstone’s employees say they’re worried about the Borders move, but Waterstone’s parent company, the London-based W.H. Smith, believes competition can only make business better for everyone. “Waterstone’s often locates near other bookstores,” confirms W.H. Smith CEO John M. Hancock. “Both in the UK and Ireland, as well as in Boston, Waterstone’s is located near other bookstores, which only expands the whole market.”

But W.H. Smith may be doing a little wishful thinking. Competitors say they have not been impressed by Waterstone’s weak attack on the Chicago market. Moreover, some have been put off by what they perceive as the chain’s arrogance. “They seem to believe they know more about selling books than any midwestern bookseller possibly could,” says a book buyer for one of the city’s independent stores. Borders, on the other hand, gets high marks among competitors for its management and business savvy. To date Borders has opened only two stores in the Chicago area (Oak Brook and Deerfield). But a Schaumburg store is scheduled to open in late spring, and a new Oak Brook facility twice the size of the existing store is also under construction. With news of the chain’s large North Michigan Avenue outpost, one competitor even went so far as to predict that Borders might become “what Kroch’s used to be” in the local marketplace: the store people think of first when looking to buy a book. Recently local Borders stores have moved into the music business as well, with an emphasis on classical and jazz recordings.

Critical Absence

A two-woman show called Kate: A Celebration opened on November 10 in the Ruggles Cabaret space at the Royal George Theatre Center and promptly closed two weeks later. The reason for the sudden shuttering? “We couldn’t get any reviews,” according to the show’s producer and author Don Hayes. This publication was the only major print or broadcast medium that reviewed the show before it folded, he says. The inability to get reviewed promptly–or at all–is a growing problem for many small, underfunded productions, according to Jim Jensen, general manager of Perkins Productions and a keen observer of the local theater business. He thinks many shows simply aren’t sufficiently well capitalized to advertise and sustain themselves for the three or four weeks it often takes to find an audience or get reviewed. Hayes sent out packets of information about his show–which traces the career of actress Katharine Hepburn from the 1930s to the present day–in early September, and then followed up with calls. When the show opened the Tribune ran a feature story on the show’s star, Cissy Conner, a United Airlines flight attendant for the past 25 years, but none of the major critics rushed to pen reviews. Hayes said Norman Mark and Roy Leonard both told him they were too busy to attend. No reviews appeared in either daily, though the Tribune’s Richard Christiansen reportedly was planning to review the production when it suddenly closed. “We were on a limited budget,” laments Hayes, who declined to reveal just how limited. “But we wanted to see the show produced.”

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