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Monday, July 27, 2009

A 35-year-old with vision and energy needed

The Chicago Tribune reports that Prairie Avenue Bookshop, "the best architectural bookshop in the world," may be closing its doors on the first of September if owners Wilbert and Marilyn Hasbrouck do not find a buyer. My friend Brandon tipped me off to this a few weeks ago, but I didn't want to believe it then, and it's hard to believe now. Even with's discounts I thought of Prairie Avenue as a mainstay, due to its deep catalog, used books and rare titles, items harder to come by and appreciate online. The Trib points out the 10.25% sales tax, "people [who] would come to the bookshop with their notepad, make notes of what they wanted and then go buy it somewhere else," and $650,000 in two lines of credit. Depressing, to say the least.

[Outside Praire Avenue Bookshop at 418 S. Wabash | image source]

So if a new owner is found, one who is able to keep Prairie Avenue on its feet, how would that happen? By diversifying the selection, in effect moving it away from truly being a bookshop? From increasing its web presence, Wilbert's recommendation? Who knows, but this news does not bode well for other specialty bookstores, architecture or not. The writing on the wall is clear that books are a dying tool, pushed out by new technologies and a consumer base swept away by them. The death of bookstores is just one step in that unfortunate but eventual process.


  1. I can think of a few things that might help, but they'd all cost a significant amount of time and money to do, and there's no chance they'd work... but perhaps widening the selection to related topics, such as books on CAD-type programs and skills, books on art, books on math, books on anthropology, books on music, and books on philosophy. Add to that a model-crafting center, where they hold workshops on how to build everything from architectural models to dollhouses. Get kids involved early on with things like "The Architecture Pack" (an architectural popup book). Have free wifi, perhaps a coffee shop with comfy chairs where people can sit and sketch. Maybe have a small stage that gives local classical musicians, string quartets, etc, a chance to play for tips. Make it a classy, trendy hangout tailored towards a more upscale (or at least more artistic) crowd than Starbucks. Sell architectural model supplies as well. Sell software related to the same subject matter as the books they sell. Have someone who really knows how to count and manage inventory go through the store and figure out what titles aren't selling, which ones are, and how often. Have them sell excess stock on ebay or amazon, keep one of each of the rarer books that never sell. If one sells, have it flagged so they know to replace it. Bookstores don't need to die. They just need to adapt and evolve to make themselves appealing enough to remain liquid.

  2. I agree with what Brandon said. It really will be sad to see it go. One thing that always got me wondering was the location and cost of rent. I don't know if a lower rent location, like out of the loop on the red or blue line, would have made any difference or even exits, but it was something I always thought of when I went there.

    Also I always thought that having Prarie be in the same location as the CAF would be beneficial to both organizations.

    Either way, I hope something can be done to save the book store. It has really been an asset to the city.

  3. It's hard. Bookstores are mostly suffering during the recession. The artistic community is also not as active and rarely can keep great designs in place. Would have loved to see the architecture stay in its place


  4. I'm not familiar with Prairie Ave., but it seems to me that architects and designer types are generally book lovers, and that of any specialty bookstores out there an architecture bookstore should have the best chance of surviving the decline of the book. This is of course not taking into consideration the recession, which is hitting the design profession hard and I would imagine has a direct correlation to sales at places like Prairie...

  5. Toronto's Ballenford's Books on Architecture went last year and another great independent, Pages is closing its doors at the end of August. It's really too bad about them all.

  6. 10.25% sales tax! Holy cow - how are ANY businesses in Chicago going to servive a recession like this?

    Let alone a specialty store that is aimed at a work sector that's been bloodlet like architecture has.........

    So long Prarie Ave you were a great freind whom I will greatly miss the next time I make it to the windy city.

  7. A H H H H H H H H H ! ! ! ! say it ain't sooooooooo!!

  8. Move Prarrie Avenue Books out of Cook County.

    Enough is enough. 10.25% is criminal and wrong.

  9. The location is a big factor brandon. If I recall, it is atleast 5-6 blocks from the nearest El-stop and is on the border of the bad part of town... now what is it that they say in real estate all the time?

  10. Stephen - Granted the store could be in a better location -- like the CAF Bookstore's spot on Michigan Avenue -- but it's proximity to the L is more like two blocks, and area on the other side of Congress can hardly be called the "bad part of town" these days. I would say the location suffers from a lack of foot traffic more than what you mentioned.

  11. Personally, I don't think the lack of foot traffic is a huge problem. Architects- PAB's main clientele- are perfectly willing to make a hike to visit. I think the bigger problem is the increased use of online retailers. Prairie Avenue has been suffering for about 15 years, while Amazon has been thriving. The old model isn't really sustainable because people no longer browse and buy, they browse and then buy online. I lived in Chicago as an architecture student... and while I loved PAB and occasionally made purchases there, it was too often too expensive. Perhaps a lower rent area in conjunction with an improved web presence could save the store. Maybe some struggling architecture firm should sublet half their office space....


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