Chi Lives: Mark Rath turns the page | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Chi Lives: Mark Rath turns the page 

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Mark Rath recalls a business meeting in Burbank with the chief engineer of NBC in the mid-80s, back when he was working for Sony. The man looked at Rath's tie, grabbed a pair of scissors, and severed the offending appendage from his neck. "He said, 'Don't ever come in here with a tie,'" Rath says.

"I never liked wearing ties, and I did it all the time--until this," he says, referring to his latest venture, Zines and Beans, a coffeehouse, juice bar, performance venue, and all-purpose source for magazine junkies. The DePaul-area storefront stocks more than 4,300 titles on every conceivable topic.

"I always knew I was going to work for myself," says Rath. "My dad instilled that in me when I was younger. He was strictly blue-collar, a printer for 40 years, but he always had ideas. He talked about a beer garden, but my mother always talked him out of it. She came from a poor family and she didn't want to take the risks. For me it was just a matter of time."

The oldest of six children, Rath grew up around Wrigley Field before the family resettled in River Grove when he was a teenager. After graduating from Holy Cross High School, he went on to study finance at the University of Northern Colorado. When he came back to Chicago, he took a job at the First National Bank, but was bored. So he moved to the electronics industry and ended up working in Sony's magnetic-tape division. In 1985 he was promoted and transferred to Los Angeles. The work was interesting and the region's sales skyrocketed under his command, but he was restless. He was ready to try something different when he won a trip to the Bahamas in a company contest. A fellow vacationer from Chicago knew all about the magnetic-tape business, and their discussions convinced Rath he could strike out on his own.

He quit his job in 1987, returned to Chicago, and created the Tape Company, a Wood Dale-based firm distributing magnetic tape to professional broadcasters, schools, and production facilities. By the time Rath sold his stake, in 1996, the company had expanded into 11 markets.

Despite the demands of success, Rath pursued myriad interests--cooking, investing, car racing. He pored over every magazine he could find on these subjects. "When I was in Los Angeles--magazine stores are really huge there, some of them are a block long and they're open 24 hours a day--I used to get these racing magazines from Britain and France that I could never find anywhere else."

He decided to open his own store offering mainstream, specialized, and alternative magazines. "I didn't know anything about this business," he says. "I just liked to read." He hired someone to teach him how to develop relationships with vendors and to use software to follow shifts in the industry. In October 1997 he opened the first Zines and Beans at a mall in Bloomingdale. Situated between a crafts store and a bicycle shop, the store drew appreciative kids and adults. But when those stores closed, Zines and Beans was isolated. Rath decided to move his shop to Chicago. Last February he secured a lease on the 4,000-square-foot space at Webster and Bissell formerly occupied by Ina's Kitchen and became actively involved in the neighborhood, hosting community meetings, student organizations, and the occasional theater or music performance.

Rath acknowledges the Internet may one day be powerful competition for magazines, but he doesn't feel threatened. "I really think the majority of people like to walk with something in their hand," he says. "There are about 30,000 magazines in the United States alone. There are probably 50 starts-ups every month, and a lot of those fade away very quickly." Rath and his staff typically add five new titles every month, track their progress for one quarter, and then decide whether to continue offering them. Just trying to keep their Web site updated (www.zinesandbeans.com) has become a chore.

He says he's trying to reconcile his practical business sensibility with his adventurous entrepreneurial spirit. "I'm not making any money yet," he admits. "We closed the Bloomingdale store just as we were about breaking even. But I'm not complaining."

Why should he? He's his own boss, working only two days a week and passing off much of the responsibility to his manager, Lonnie Martin. Rath can often be found in the greenhouse at the back of the store. He's wearing jeans, running shoes, and a sweater. "This is what I've always wanted to do," he says. "This is how I always wanted to dress for work."

Zines and Beans, 934 W. Webster (773-755-2681), is open weekdays from 7 AM to 9 PM and weekends from 8 AM to 9 PM.

--Patrick Z. McGavin

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