Writing’s the Easy Part

Chicago writer Tim Brown admits it’s been a struggle to get his first novel into print. Already a published poet and editor of a zine called Tomorrow, Brown’s been burned in the past. Several years ago he had another manuscript accepted by a small press that went belly-up before it could honor his contract.

But Brown stuck to it. He worked as a computer consultant by day and continued to write at night and on weekends. Lacking an agent, he stayed away from the big New York publishers. Instead he sent out nearly 300 query letters to small presses all over the country. Eventually he heard from Bill Meyers, who owns III Publishing, a tiny operation in Gualala, California, that puts out two or three titles a year. Meyers says he was immediately attracted to Brown’s novel, Deconstruction Acres, a satirical look at life in a small university town (one professor pens a tome deconstructing the 60s sitcom Green Acres). “I mainly publish satire,” explains Meyers, who adds that Brown’s book may be “less political” than most of the fiction he publishes, but he was won over by the strength of the writing. Still, Meyers says, taking on the book is “a gamble,” because Brown has no track record. An early review in Publisher’s Weekly didn’t help matters; the influential trade magazine called the novel “a clunky gown-town farce.” Meyers downplays the importance of the nasty notice: “I’ve done OK without that magazine so far.”

Though III Publishing will buy some advertising to promote Deconstruction Acres, Meyers has no money for an author’s tour. Brown has taken the initiative, stitching together a 13-city trip that will take him to readings at a variety of bookstores, from the Barnes & Noble in Evanston to Biblio’s in New York City. Since all the funding is coming out of his own pocket, Brown says, he chose cities where friends and relatives can house him. He plans to rely on independent booksellers to move his book: “The independents are the ones who will push interesting books from smaller presses.”

Performing Arts Center Seeks Manager, Momentum

Ten months after its official opening, the $20 million North Shore Center for the Performing Arts is looking for a new general manager. Last year the village of Skokie hired Professional Facilities Management, a company based in Providence, Rhode Island, to run its new arts complex. The firm then brought in Kirk Wahamaki from a small Terre Haute theater to be general manager. Now, a year later, Professional Facilities Management president Lynn Singleton says Wahamaki was “not a good fit.” One source complains the operation is in disarray: “We still don’t have a box-office manager.” Late last month, Michael Barber, a management and marketing consultant, was brought in as interim manager. Barber has helped the city of Lansing, Michigan, to develop operating plans for such municipal facilities as a baseball park, a convention center, and an amphitheater.

Barber, however, doesn’t want to stay at the North Shore Center for more than 60 to 90 days, according to Singleton, and the company is searching for a new general manager from the Chicago area. When Wahamaki first arrived, many questioned the wisdom of enlisting someone with slight knowledge of the Chicago market. Skokie village manager Mark Vanderpool says the center ended its first fiscal year last April with a $4,000 surplus, but the bottom line has been temporarily propped up by an annual $250,000 operating subsidy from the village. “The North Shore Center is supposed to be self-sustaining within five to seven years,” says Vanderpool.

Whoever is named general manager will need to fill the 850-seat main-stage theater. Singleton has tried to persuade some producers of large touring musicals to use it as a low-cost rehearsal space, but so far he’s found no takers. Meanwhile, Centre East, the resident not-for-profit presenter of live entertainment, launches its new season this weekend, the first without founder Dorothy Litwin. Attendance at a number of Centre East shows was less than expected last season. Vanderpool and others attribute the disappointing turnout to poor marketing. “Centre East has had a difficult time,” says Vanderpool, “but its future looks more promising.”

Do You Want a Latte With That?

A marriage may be in the works between Starbucks Coffee and Briazz, a gourmet carryout chain. Both companies are headquartered in Seattle, and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz sits on the board of directors at Briazz, which caters to business folk looking for a quick quality lunch. Starbucks has been in the Chicago area since the late 1980s, while Briazz opened its first outlet in the Loop, at 111 W. Jackson, only last month. The two-year-old company is the brainchild of Victor Alhadeff, who previously founded Egghead Discount Software (he left the retail chain in 1990). Unlike most carryout shops, which prepare food on-site, Briazz builds a separate commissary to make all the meals delivered daily to each outlet. In Chicago, Briazz has an 11,500-square-foot facility at 1642 W. Lake; it will be preparing food for six outlets expected to open before next summer.

At some point in the near future, the Briazz commissary may begin preparing gourmet lunch items for local Starbuckses. In a bid to expand its lunchtime business, Starbucks has been testing Briazz products in 11 of its Seattle coffee shops during the last year. A Starbucks spokesman says the company has been getting “good feedback,” but for now it hasn’t decided on whether to expand the test in Chicago. Alhadeff says Briazz is concentrating on its own Chicago expansion–new shops are slated for the Wrigley Building and a parking garage at the corner of Madison and Wells.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Tim Brown photo by George Burns.