Friday, August 7, 2009
Chicago's great architectural bookshop facing the end of its own long story
For the sheer wealth of its collection, few architecture bookstores in the world can match the Prairie Avenue Bookshop. Architects and architecture lovers can browse thousands of titles at the store, which set up shop on Chicago's Prairie Avenue in 1974 and has been at 418 S. Wabash Ave. since 1995. Unfortunately for the proprietors, Wilbert and Marilyn Hasbrouck, not all of the browsers have been buyers.
“People would come to the bookshop with their notepad, make notes of what they wanted and then go buy it somewhere else," Wilbert Hasbrouck said last week. He blamed the 10.25 percent sales tax for driving buyers to online booksellers like Amazon.com.
Forty-eight years after Marilyn Hasbrouck started the business from the couple's suburban Park Forest home, the Hasbroucks say they will likely close the bookshop, an institution in Chicago's architecture community, on Sept. 1--unless, that is, a buyer can be found. "We're losing a national resource," said Chicago architect John Eifler. "It's very sad."
The bookshop is more like a library than a Barnes & Noble. On the forest-green walls of its 9,000-square-foot, three-level space are gold letters spelling out the names of more than 300 architects, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Helmut Jahn. It's a meeting place, of sorts, for Chicago's notoriously competitive architectural community. "You would run into other architects there--or hide from other architects," Eifler said.
Wilbert Hasbrouck, 77, and Marilyn, 76, decided about a year ago that they would try to sell the bookshop. But finding a buyer has not been easy. The store does not operate in the black and the Hasbroucks have subsidized it ever since the move to Wabash Avenue, Wilbert Hasbrouck said. A buyer would have to assume responsibility for two lines of credit that total at least $650,000.
The Hasbroucks have discussed a sale with book dealers and even the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the non-profit group that runs architectural tours and has a gift shop at its 224 S. Michigan Ave. headquarters. But nothing has jelled. Which raises a broader question: Can architectural book stores succeed in this digital age?
"You just have to realize that it's a different climate and provide something that people can't get elsewhere," said Matt Stromberg of William Stout Architectural Books in San Francisco. "Fifty years ago, you couldn't find normal architectural books anywhere. Now you can find them everywhere--for a discount. ... Why would you buy that $200 book from us when you could get it almost 40 percent off, free shipping and no tax?"
Other architectural bookshops have survived by transforming themselves into museum shops. An example: the former Ginkgo Tree Bookshop next to Frank Lloyd Wright's Home and Studio in Oak Park, which was renamed the Home and Studio Museum Shop about two years ago, according to Joan Mercuri, president of the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust.
In its previous incarnation, she said, the 800-square-foot shop was book-heavy, carrying a multitude of titles on Wright and other Prairie Style architects. It still offers lots of Wright books, but you can also buy everything from puzzles to home decorations to clothing there. "It's just that people are looking for different things now," Mercuri said. "With the economic slowdown, people are looking for things that are less expensive as well."
Wilbert Hasbrouck would love to find a 35-year-old who has the vision and the energy to expand the Prairie Avenue Bookshop's Web presence. If that could happen, he said, "I'm convinced that it would not just be profitable, but would be what it is by reputation--the best architectural bookshop in the world." But without a last-minute miracle, this icon of Chicago's architectural community will continue to sell down its present stock at a deep discount (at a recent sale, customers got 50 percent off if they bought $100 or more worth of books). The jobs of three full-time staff members are at stake, too.
"Most of the changes that happen with technology I'm fine with," Eifler said. "But this loss of publishing is really hard to take. I don't know if some Kindle look-alike will ever replace having a nice book in front of you with photographs."