New David, Same Goliath

Ann Christophersen joined the board of the American Booksellers Association after her own store, Women & Children First, took a hit from the big chains in the 1990s. Early this month she was elected ABA board president, making her the first Chicagoan and the first owner of a feminist store to head up the 102-year-old trade group. Christophersen says the ABA has created a more level playing field for independent sellers in the last few years, but the long-term outlook is worrisome. As she cracks the spine of her new job, in which she represents more than 2,000 bookstores nationally, she’s facing the rumored arrival of yet another Borders, at Lawrence and Broadway, only a mile from her own shop.

Christophersen and co-owner Linda Bubon met as graduate students at UIC in the 1970s. They opened their store, specializing in children’s books and books by and about women, in 1979 in Lincoln Park, moving to their current North Clark Street location in ’90. Business grew steadily until ’93, when it took a dramatic drop. Borders and Barnes & Noble had opened in Evanston and Lincoln Park, both areas W&CF drew from. The dip was followed by several grim years in which sales were flat and other small stores were closing.

About that time the ABA decided to put its muscle behind the independents. In ’94 it filed suit against major publishers, seeking an end to unfair trade practices including discounts not based on volume. In ’98 it sued Borders and Barnes & Noble. The big companies bailed out of the trade group, and membership, also affected by closings, dropped about 50 percent from a high of 4,000. But the suits resulted in court orders that gave the small sellers a fighting chance. The ABA also developed a marketing program that allows independents to offer nationally redeemable gift certificates, their own best-seller and recommended-reading lists, and a Web site ( that hooks up buyers with independents in their area and an inventory of two million books.

Still, Christophersen says, as a result of the chains’ relentless expansion, “there are vastly more outlets for books than there is a reading and buying public to support them.” With about 40 Borders and Barnes & Noble stores in the Chicago area, she’s concerned about the future. “We feel so strongly about the necessity for diverse bookstores, owned by people in and of their communities,” she says. “But who in their right mind would open an independent bookstore in Chicago right now?”

Higher Voices Calling

James Palermo, who’s run the Grant Park Music Festival for seven years, will be leaving at the end of this season. That’s a year and a half before the festival’s anticipated move to its Frank Gehry-designed home in Millennium Park and a year after it was nudged under the wing of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs. Palermo, the festival’s artistic and general director, has spent five years obsessing over the plans for the new band shell, and now he won’t be around to see it completed. Chalk it up to September 11, he says, or to a midlife crisis, but he’s off to Perugia to spend a year learning Italian and getting in touch with his roots. “This is all about being self-indulgent at age 42,” he says. “I looked at what happened on 9/11, took stock, said this is something I don’t want to put off.”

The music festival’s been a program of the Chicago Park District since 1935. Dreamed up by Chicago Federation of Musicians president James C. Petrillo as a gig for union members, it was initially cosponsored by the union and the Park District, which presented as many as 100 orchestra and band concerts each season, some with high-profile guest performers and national radio broadcasts. In 1943 the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra was established, the program became solidly classical, and the union dropped out as a sponsor. For the next 58 years the Park District ran the festival on its own. Then last spring, with the architecturally significant new band shell in the offing, the festival staff was merged with the Department of Cultural Affairs. Palermo’s handful of full-time employees moved into the Cultural Center, Cultural Affairs added a couple of people to its own staff and took over festival marketing and fund-raising, and Palermo began reporting to Cultural Affairs commissioner Lois Weisberg.

“I think it’s a tremendous advantage,” Palermo says. “We wanted to pull out all the stops and maximize the number of people that come to the concerts.” Changes that will show up this season include the Park Cafe, a tented restaurant (owned by the Chicago Firehouse Restaurant and Blue Plate Catering) where the hot dog and pizza stands used to be, and an experimental “rush hour” concert series from 6:30 to 8 on Wednesdays to bolster limp midweek attendance. Total festival attendance last year was 152,000.

Cultural Affairs has also established the nonprofit Grant Park Orchestral Association to raise funds. The Park District will provide $2 million of the festival’s $2.8 million budget each year for the next two years, with the remaining $800,000 to be raised by Cultural Affairs and the new 29-member association board. The festival hasn’t had a nonprofit fund-raising arm since 1996, when it unilaterally divorced the Grant Park Concerts Society, whose sole mission for 18 years had been to be its benefactor. When the society’s executive director, Betty Madigan, protested–“We can’t figure out what we’ve done to deserve this. All we’ve ever done is give them money”–Palermo explained he’d raise more by bringing the fund-raising in-house. No word yet on Palermo’s successor; the Grant Park season opens June 14.

Christiansen’s Big Night

Even the anticlimactic business of reading raffle numbers couldn’t break the spell of the League of Chicago Theatres’ benefit tribute to Richard Christiansen last Monday at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, where readings of excerpts from Christiansen’s reviews were neatly paired with snippets from plays he’d covered. Columbia College student Gina Louisa Cappetta was presented with the first Richard Christiansen-John Raitt Scholarship to attend the American Center for Music and Theater’s summer stock program in Los Angeles. Among the memorable turns, fellow honoree Frank Galati was eloquent, the Goodman’s Robert Falls was hilarious, Christiansen’s childhood inspiration John Raitt was still around to serenade him, and the critic himself, citing an example set years ago by director Tyrone Guthrie, took a bow that promised a second act. It was the league’s most successful fund-raiser, grossing about $130,000.

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