Robert M. Katzman first showed up in the pages of the Reader back in 1977. He was the 27-year-old owner of three newsstands and an upstart periodicals-distribution company who had taken on the giant Charles Levy Circulating Company in a David-and-Goliath antitrust suit that lasted four years and ended with Levy buying him out. Katzman’s next business was the Grand Tour World Travel Bookstore on North Clark, which he acquired just before the national chains came to town. (The store closed in November 1994.) And for the last 15 years he’s been running Magazine Memories and Poster Planet, vintage magazine and poster stores that grew out of a periodical collection he started the day John F. Kennedy was killed. The two businesses occupy a double storefront in a strip mall on Dempster in Morton Grove.

But over the last five years, Katzman says, things have been “evolving precariously.” Internet dealers have been eating his lunch. His wife–a major contributor to the family budget–developed a debilitating illness and lost her job. Katzman underwent a pair of brain surgeries, bringing the total of his surgical ordeals–which began when he was 18 and lost half his jaw to cancer–to 29. In financial straits, he put his suburban home on the market this fall but failed to find a buyer. Now his mortgage company has foreclosed; he has until the first week of January to move out. He also has to get out of Poster Planet because he can’t afford to rent the two spaces anymore. His 20,000 “posters”–many of them pages or covers from vintage magazines–are on sale at half price through the end of the year, when he’ll somehow shrink back to a single space.

On the other hand, Katzman says, he’s closer than ever to achieving his longtime fantasy of becoming a famous writer. He’s self-published two volumes of his life story, Fighting Words, and reports with no little satisfaction that his old nemesis, Barnes & Noble, has just ordered 100 copies for regional distribution. The first volume, I’m Not Dead . . . Yet, came out last year; the second, Escaping and Embracing the Cops of Chicago, which begins with a story about undercover police mistaking him for an Arab burglary suspect and beating the shit out of him until he recites a prayer in Hebrew, is hot off the press. He’s sold about 700 copies of the two books so far on his own, peddling them at signings and lectures, and discovered along the way that he’s got a talent for inspirational speaking. If his career as a great undiscovered writer and talker ever takes off, he says, he’ll kiss the store good-bye.

Magazine Memories without Katzman is unimaginable. Beginning with a cluttered window display of posters, signs, and life-size cardboard celebrities (Betty Boop hanging out with Christina Aguilera) that makes it a challenge just to find the door, it’s a claustrophobic maze. Once inside you’re caught in a fluorescent-lit warren of hulking raw wood shelving stuffed with plastic-bagged issues of Esquire, Newsweek, and every copy of Life ever printed times six or eight. Katzman built the too-tall shelves himself, for “majesty,” he says (“the eye sweeps up”) and hand printed the lemonade-stand-style cardboard signs, which flag categories like “Tet Offensive,” “Cheap Sex,” and “New Yorker Football Covers.” You can browse the shrink-wrapped posters (“Endangered Horses,” “Popes: Deaths, Travels”) but only Katzman can remove the magazines from their baggies–if you want to take a closer look at any of them, you’ll have to do it with his help. He carries the 100,000-magazine inventory in his head and knows exactly which shelf or bin in his crammed space has that vintage copy of Literary Digest, American Cookery, or Teen Super Star you’re after. While he’s escorting you to it you’re likely to get a dose of his get-up, start-over, don’t-quit philosophy or a sales pitch for the autobiography, strategically positioned for point-of-sale impact next to the cash register. The books are 20 bucks each; no charge yet for the pep talk.

Public Art Watchdog Still Watching

“I had to do it,” attorney Scott Hodes says of his new lawsuit against the city over its public art procedures. “They weren’t doing what they’re supposed to do.” Hodes, who settled a similar suit last May, filed again on November 17, claiming that the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs hasn’t complied with all the terms of the settlement agreement. Hodes charges that the Project Advisory Panel, which makes recommendations to the Public Art Committee, has failed to keep detailed minutes of its meetings, post agendas and minutes in a timely way, identify individual members’ votes, or describe procedures and selection guidelines. According to the complaint, “the City’s use of a slide registry for the selection of artists, which it describes as a ‘form of open competition’ . . . is nothing more than an intentionally misleading and deceptive effort” to evade the mandated disclosure. Robert S. Atkins is acting as Hodes’s lead lawyer and Jay E. Stewart of the Better Government Association is serving as cocounsel.


Guess it looks better when they win: The Chicago Bears and the Chicago Park District were among the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s recently announced Patron of the Year award recipients, for their role in the Soldier Field and North Burnham Park Redevelopment.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen J. Serio.