Cold rain tapped sporadically on the pavement under the elevated tracks on Wabash. It was perfect bookstore weather. Gray skies and wet streets are supposed to have the same effect on bookstores that the full moon has on psych wards. But few people were in the old Kroch’s & Brentano’s last Thursday, when the remaining bits and pieces of the venerable bookstore were sold at auction.

Auctioneers were ready for a big crowd, but only 20 or so booksellers showed up. There were as many auction-house employees dressed in blue smocks as there were customers looking for a bargain. Bidding started on the stuff lying around the cashier’s island. One set of Lincoln Memorial bookends–gangly, rumpled Abe sprawled low in his high chair–went for 70 bucks. “That’s twice what they go for retail,” muttered one of the bidders. Auction fever had struck early.

In slick hair and purple-tinted glasses, the auctioneer sat on a raised stool on a cart–buyers followed him as he drove around the store from lot to lot. He kept the proceedings moving, talking fast and loose and fluid. He talked up coffeepots, clocks, a crappy swivel chair, a pretty good swivel chair, a box full of horoscope scrolls, posters. “Let me hear ya, let me hear ya, let me hear ya. Look at me, look at me, look at me…”

Black-and-white photos of authors smiled out over the store from the north wall. Amy Tan, Tom Clancy, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Mary Higgins Clark, Bill Grainger. They were being sold as a group.

The stuff that had already come up for sale–and it all sold–was junk. But to at least a few booksellers, the junk had meaning. It was Kroch’s & Brentano’s junk, and at one time Kroch’s & Brentano’s had meant something. According to writer Henry Regnery, Kroch’s & Brentano’s can be traced back to one of the earliest bookstores in Chicago, W.W. Barlow & Co., which was founded in 1844.

Straggling behind the buyers were Gene Paquette and Brad Jonas, from Powell’s Bookstore. Paquette said, “You can look around here and see the demise of what was once one of the greatest independent bookstores in the country.” But Kroch’s time had been past for a while.

Jonas mentioned that the last ten years in particular had been unkind to Kroch’s. Paquette turned slowly in a circle. “This is sad,” he said. “There are more cash registers here than books.” There actually were many more books than cash registers, but if you put the registers together with the used computers for sale he didn’t seem too far off.

Another auctioneer climbed on the cart. His hair was slicked back in the same style as the first auctioneer, but he spoke slowly, announcing that he would conduct one sale and one sale only. The books were organized into many separate lots–each set of shelves in the store had a lot number. “I’m here to ask, how much can I get for all of them?”

No one had actually counted the books, but the auctioneers estimated there were about 35,000 books remaining. After the going-out-of-business sales, and after the store had returned what it could to publishers, this was what was left. The auctioneer said he’d been told that the books had a retail value of $500,000. Noting the looks of doubt on the faces of the booksellers, he said he wasn’t claiming that the figure was true. “That’s what they told me. But you are the experts.” One buyer whispered, “Police claimed the ounce of drugs they seized had a street value of half a million bucks.”

“So, what am I bid for all of them?”

The first offer was $20,000.

Three people bid on the books, then it was down to two. The final bid of $60,000 was enough to take every book in the store–if the books didn’t go for a higher cumulative price when auctioned off in lots. The typical lot was one bookcase, with four full shelves. Chances of getting that higher price were low. Most of the buyers had drifted off, though interest rose again when the shelves came up for sale. Paquette and Jonas started toward the door, but were stopped by a title in a bookcase at the front of the store. Bracketed by copies of So Red the Nose, or Breath in the Afternoon, an old compilation of celebrity cocktail recipes, and Philosophy of Organization were 30 copies of a thin, green hardcover, Bookstores Can Be Saved. The author was Adolph Kroch.

They examined the slim volume for a moment, then walked out into the rain and looked for a cab on Wabash. After 151 years in Chicago, Kroch’s was about to expire. For those who remained, it was still a good day to sell books.

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