Jerome began as a copyreader in the twilight years of the Reader's long era of plenty; he leaves this week as managing editor of a transformed paper. He's seen the Reader through every difficult change of owner and publisher, through bankruptcy, and through this year's transition from the plain brick building on Illinois Street that the Reader bought, gutted, transformed, and moved into in 1983 to the eerie splendor of the Sun-Times Media suite in the Apparel Center, where the staff has felt a little like pampered houseguests who wonder each night if in the morning the charming owner will lead them down into the basement laboratory to be experimented on.
Jerome Ludwig loved the Reader. He says this often. He loved the people who worked here and the kind of journalism and writing we published. Unless the paper closed or laid him off, he expected to be here until he retired. He would never come close to getting rich, and the hours were ridiculous. But his free time offered the pleasures and solace of books, golf, and Buddhism; and his vacations took him to his companion, Brigitte Kather, in Berlin. All this was enough for a centered guy.
But as he entered his 50s the hours finally began to wear him down, and the new quarters were so strange he knew he could never settle into them. Jerome wrestled with his decision for months, but this fall he decided he owed his life one more new thing. As I write this, it appears that thing will be to open a used bookstore near his home in Edgewater. For three years before he joined the Reader in 1998, he worked at Bookworks in Lakeview, and the owners, Bob Roschke and Ronda Pilon, became his friends. They have far more books in storage than they can display in their shop, and they've agreed to share many with Jerome to help him get up and running. They've been just as generous with their counsel.
They told him to beware.
"He couldn't overestimate the amount of work involved," says Roschke. "It's really like a farm. It's 24-7," says Pilon. "You can get calls at four in the morning." Those are the ones letting you know rowdies on the street just broke your front window. "We're open seven days a week because we have to be, to stay viable," she continues. Since Jerome worked at Bookworks, a third of its business has become selling used books online through Amazon and other e-tailers. "You can't stay in business without it," Pilon says, "and it's like another small business that you're running."
"As much as I've tried to learn every possible aspect of the business," says Roschke, "most of my involvement is going to be more leaning to wishing I had a business degree than wishing I had a literature degree. I don't know if Jerome knows how that would interface for him. But I don't think he's so much a dreamer than he thinks the business sense is second to the literary sense."
"This is not a high-profit business," says Pilon. "This is a business where you can make enough money to live on if you have a lean lifestyle and realistic expectations."
"Do you think you discouraged him at all?" I asked.
"I hope not," says Roschke.
The day before Thanksgiving, Jerome sent the editorial staff an e-mail slugged "So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye . . ." The message was short and breezy. "Just letting you all know about my upcoming departure from my beloved Chicago Reader. My last day will be December 21." I asked for a little more information than that, and he replied at length. He wrote, "There's a great deal of regret in this decision—but there's more relief than regret. It came only after many agonizing back-and-forths in my mind, sleepless nights, my head fighting with my heart, but finally my head and heart aligned."
Jerome will be greatly missed at the Reader. Yet to say that is completely insufficient.