The last word
Unless a buyer emerges, Prairie Avenue Books will close
07/29/2009 10:00 PM
Prairie Avenue Books, a retail anchor on South Wabash Avenue and touchstone institution for architects in Chicago and around the globe, will close this September unless a buyer scoops up the entire business from longtime owners Marilyn and Wilbert Hasbrouck.
The decision to close, Wilbert Hasbrouck said, came a few weeks ago and was prompted by concurrent economic issues and personal choices.
“My wife and I have reached the age where we’re not up to coming here every day. There were a couple of other things, too. We couldn’t deal with the sales tax in Chicago,” he explained. “According to what we call the ‘Al Gore law,’ you don’t have to pay sales taxes if you buy on the Web.
“We couldn’t fight the incredible sales tax and the ability to purchase online without paying it. And online, Web dealers give incredible discounts. We just decided not to deal with it anymore.”
Prairie Avenue Books has been in its current space, 418 S. Wabash, since 1995. Before that, the store operated in Printers Row and in a building at 1900 S. Prairie Ave.
The store has developed a sterling reputation for the depth of its collection, its out-of-print stock and the obscure titles lining its shelves. London’s Financial Times once called the shop the world’s best architecture bookstore, and Hasbrouck said he’s enjoyed hosting luminaries like Rem Koolhaus, Sergio Calatrava and all the “Chicago big-time architects” at the shop. Associated projects over the years included publishing the Prairie School Review and reissuing rare books.
Inside the store, jazz music doesn’t quite muffle noise from the El tracks adorning Wabash Avenue, which seems appropriate for a store with numerous books on urban planning. Green lamp shades dangle from the high ceilings, and there are plenty of places to sit and browse, including a wooden oval table surrounded by chairs with high backs. Decorative effects around the shop are from the Prairie School style.
The book selection is immense. There are stacks of old architecture publications and current editions of Licensed Architect, Chicago Wilderness and the magazine published by the Chicago Art Deco Society. Two plastic containers overflow with posters and Frank Lloyd Wright prints.
Gleaming hardcover books about the hottest contemporary architects to New York City’s “1971-1972 Draft Capital Budget of the Capital Improvement Plan for the Ensuing Five Fiscal Years,” which a reporter found in the out-of-print area, dot the store.
The news of the impending closure, first announced in the Tribune by architecture critic Blair Kamin, didn’t necessarily come as a surprise to some in the local architecture community. But it still was a blow.
“I think people have seen this coming for a while. The Hasbroucks have been open about wanting to find a buyer,” said Lynn Osmond, president of the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
“It’s obviously a great loss to the community,” she said.
Zurich Esposito, executive vice president of the American Institute of Architects Chicago chapter, said he had met with Wilbert Hasbrouck two years ago to discuss the future of the store. The local AIA chapter published a piece on the store about a year ago, hoping a member of the group might purchase the business or know someone willing to do so.
That hasn’t happened, and Esposito is unaware of any specific plans or proposals to save the store.
“Our foundation board had discussed the whole topic of the store’s possible closure with great concern,” he said. “It’s something nobody wants to have happen.
“It’s not just a local resource. People all around the world shop there.”
The president of South Loop Neighbors, Dennis McClendon, said niche stores like Prairie Avenue Books were the kind of places that initially drew him to Chicago.
“It really is a shame. Those kinds of extremely specialized retailers are one of the great joys of living in a big, metropolitan area. It’s the kind of thing suburbs couldn’t possibly support,” said McClendon, who runs Chicago Cartographics, a map-making firm. “Those kind of places were so wonderful, and one of a kind.”