A Book of Verse, a Cup of Joe, and Thou/Possible Profit Sharing/Passing the Hat | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

A Book of Verse, a Cup of Joe, and Thou/Possible Profit Sharing/Passing the Hat 

Change is brewing at Waterstone's: manager Mary Beth Mitchell is putting in a coffee bar.

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A Book of Verse, a Cup of Joe, and Thou

When Waterstone's Booksellers arrived on North Michigan Avenue two years ago, it intended to remain above the discounting fray. But to adapt to the Chicago marketplace, London-based Waterstone's, one of Britain's major bookstore chains, almost immediately added best-seller discounts and other sales promotions. Last week Waterstone's announced two more major concessions to the changing realities of the Chicago bookselling business. Sometime this month they'll open a second-floor music department focusing on classical, jazz, and blues recordings, and just inside the store's main entrance customers will find a new coffee bar, an amenity that may soon become de rigueur in bookstores all over Chicago and the suburbs.

Observers view the new additions at Waterstone's as a major departure from its previously announced sales philosophy. Notes Fred Karr, manager of the Borders Books & Music store in Oak Brook: "I had gotten the impression that all they did was sell books." Waterstone's executives insist the changes are the result of a recent market survey in which an overwhelming 84 percent of respondents suggested Waterstone's should add music. Philip Downer, vice president of Waterstone's USA, says the inclusion of music makes sense because the bookstore's parent company, W.H. Smith, runs The Wall, a chain of 170 music stores in the northeastern U.S., and another music-store chain in the United Kingdom. Downer also says Waterstone's customers have been clamoring for a coffee bar almost since the store opened, and subsequent market research indicated coffee would be a good idea.

But competitors doubt research alone prompted Waterstone's to add music and coffee. Clearly the new offerings are a preemptive strike against Borders, which is scheduled to open a superstore next door to Waterstone's, on the former site of I. Magnin, in late January. The 20-year-old Borders chain introduced music into its retailing mix in 1992 and unveiled its first coffee bar in a downtown Philadelphia store in 1990. According to Karr, the coffee bar concept proved "phenomenally successful" at that location, and Borders now features one in all its new stores. Coffee bars stocked with Starbucks coffee are also featured in seven of the eight Barnes & Noble stores in the Chicago area. The Wheaton store, which lacks a coffee bar, is next to a Starbucks. The company has recently begun highlighting the coffee bars in its radio spots, an advertising ploy that didn't go unnoticed by Downer at Waterstone's: "The radio spots talk about Barnes & Noble being a great place to meet and just happen to mention books in passing towards the end."

Sandra Popik, manager of the Barnes & Noble on Diversey, says the spots touting the chain's coffee bars are among four or five radio commercials the New York-based chain is currently airing in the Chicago market. She says the coffee bars make money and that customers like them because they make the giant superstores feel "more intimate and not so overwhelming."

The trend toward coffee bars in chain bookstores has put added pressure on independent booksellers who have neither the space nor the financial wherewithal to introduce such amenities. Crusty longtime bookseller Stuart Brent thinks the trend won't last. "It's a cosmic joke," says Brent, who doubts young people will be coaxed into buying books by "absurd coffee mixtures that are supposed to make them feel unique and fashionable." Unabridged Books staffer David Kodeski says the additional staff needed to run a coffee bar would be a financial drain at his store. Barbara's Bookstores co-owner Pat Peterson vetoed the idea of adding a coffee bar at the Barbara's on Wells, where construction began in September on an addition that will increase the store's square footage by 50 percent. Says Peterson: "We toyed with the idea of putting in a coffee bar, but you can't walk five feet on Wells Street without running into a coffee bar, and we really needed the extra space for books."

Waterstone's executives estimate that the addition of music and coffee will cause only a 5 percent reduction in the store's inventory, which emphasizes back-list books often hard to find at superstores that focus primarily on new releases. Outgoing store manager Mary Beth Mitchell says that the book inventory won't be diluted, but simply "concentrated on the lower levels."

Possible Profit Sharing

In the not-for-profit theater world, difficult financial circumstances demand pragmatic business practices. So Cloud 42 artistic director Patrick Trettenero is instituting a new shared-risk policy for the run of its latest show. An expanded version of the play about Oscar Wilde that the company premiered in 1989, Living Up to My Blue China opens next Tuesday on the main stage of the new Bailiwick Arts Center. Since the company has a deficit approaching $20,000 and Trettenero says he cannot risk incurring additional losses, everyone involved in the production--actors, designers, Bailiwick, and even the publicist--aren't being paid up front. Instead they'll share in a percentage of the weekly box office take after advertising expenses are deducted. Cloud 42's debt came from two productions--Camille (Deflowered) and Camille (A Tearjerker)--mounted in repertory last winter at the Body Politic space on North Lincoln Avenue. Trettenero says that early next spring he will take a one-year sabbatical from Cloud 42 while he and actress Maripat Donovan tour the U.S. in Late Nite Catechism.

Passing the Hat

In a move that surprised staffers at the League of Chicago Theatres, the International Theatre Festival of Chicago earlier this fall paid off in full a $15,000 debt owed the league for advertising expenditures. "I hadn't expected to see that money for some time," noted executive director Tony Sertich. Other creditors will not be so lucky. In form letters sent out last month, the financially troubled theater festival enclosed checks for 10 percent of the debt owed to each of them. The letter said, "The enclosed check represents nearly the last of the Festival's resources," and asked the creditors to consider treating the rest of the debt as a tax-deductible gift. Last spring's fifth biennial theater festival lost approximately $250,000, resulting in the resignation of its executive director and cofounder Jane Nicholl Sahlins. Its board of directors is scheduled to meet today to consider what board president Richard Gray calls a "fresh" approach to continuing the event.

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

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