Closing the Book
Asked why his secondhand bookstore is closing its doors at the end of the month, Paul Rohe doesn't mince words. "Lack of business," he snaps. "The superstores have a sea of remainders they are selling cheaper than I can buy them." But the closing of Paul Rohe & Sons also follows a series of moves that in the last five years took the business from Clark and Belmont to Lincoln and Altgeld and finally back to Belmont and Seminary, not far from its earlier location but apparently not close enough to save it. With Borders, Super Crown, and Barnes & Noble creating a book-retail magnet at Clark and Diversey, the neighborhood's smaller booksellers are getting sucked under in quick succession. Rohe could run but he couldn't hide.
Rohe says his store thrived for more than a decade at 3176 N. Clark, just south of Belmont, but he had to contend with a leaky cellar that frequently filled with rainwater and sewage. "We got tired of swimming around in the basement," says Rohe, "to say nothing of the smell." In 1992 he and his son Chris moved to a new storefront at 2503 N. Lincoln, but the location turned out to be death row for book retailers: Guild Books had just thrown in the towel, and in the next four years Dan Behnke Booksellers and the Children's Bookstore closed as well, driven out by fraternity types flocking to the area's bars. Again Rohe & Sons pulled up stakes, landing this time at 1051 W. Belmont, just west of the el and in close proximity to two specialty booksellers, the gay-and-lesbian People Like Us and the Stars Our Destination, a sci-fi bookstore.
"We reopened in September of 1996 and had the most spectacular month in our history," recalls Rohe. October was good too, but then sales plummeted, and the business never recovered. Rohe found the new location a poor one for a business dependent on foot traffic. "If you stand on the Belmont Street elevated platform at rush hour and look east, you see a sea of people heading home, but if you look west, where we are, you see hardly anyone." Rohe & Sons isn't the only casualty: People Like Us Books closed abruptly a few months ago.
In recent weeks the Rohes have been liquidating their inventory of 40,000 titles, charging walk-ins a dollar a book. Many were bought by a local firm called National Law Resources, which builds and stocks prison libraries. NLR staffers combed through the inventory, looking for appropriate selections. "Needless to say we were left with a whole gay-and-lesbian section," says Chris Rohe, "and our grisly true-crime department went untouched." Watching his bookstore shut down has put Paul Rohe in a reflective mood. "There are fewer readers nowadays than there were 20 years ago," he points out, "and infinitely fewer than there were 40 years ago." Rohe thinks that VCRs and the skyrocketing cost of books have hastened the decline in reading. "Forty years ago you could buy a first edition of John Steinbeck for $2, but if you want to read current fiction you will pay anywhere from $20 to $30 for a book." People could actually afford to build libraries in the 1960s, says Rohe, but today that's less likely to happen.
Rohe's own career began at Random House, where he was a field editor in the college division. In 1968 he moved his family from Boston to Evanston and worked at Scott Foresman before opening his own shop. "We had a house full of books, and it seemed a smart thing to do," remembers Chris Rohe. The first store opened in north Evanston in 1977, then in 1982 Paul Rohe moved to Lakeview. With the closing only a few weeks away, Rohe is still smarting over the shop's unfortunate journey. "If I had believed the new location would destroy me so quickly, I would never have left that smelly basement on Clark Street."
Last Friday's press conference at the Auditorium Theatre was meant to be a celebration: the Auditorium Theatre Council wanted to announce the theater's first Home for the Holidays Festival, a potpourri of seasonal events running from December 11 through January 3 that will include Mandy Patinkin and the Canadian Brass. The press event also marked the 30th anniversary of ATC founder Beatrice Spachner's reopening of the landmark theater. The stretch of Congress Parkway in front of the theater now bears her name.
But behind the scenes an ugly battle was raging between the ATC, which now operates the Auditorium, and Roosevelt University, which owns the building and also claims the right to operate the theater and control its revenues. For nearly two years Roosevelt and the ATC have been slugging it out in court and in the media. The battle began when Roosevelt president Ted Gross announced he might use some of the theater's profits to fund other university projects. ATC members Fred Eychaner and Betty Lou Weiss immediately filed suit to block any such action.
Not surprisingly the court fight has only escalated the tension between the two sides. Sources at Roosevelt say that Jan Kallish, acting executive director of the Auditorium Theatre, notified the university only 24 hours before the press conference that none of its representatives would be allowed to speak. Roosevelt's vice president for development, Ronald Champagne, showed up anyway, carrying a polite statement peppered with references to Roosevelt's ownership of the theater. Ushered to a seat in the last row, he was never invited to read his remarks.
Meanwhile Roosevelt attorneys scheduled a court hearing on the Auditorium issue to begin one hour after the start of the press conference. "The day we are there to celebrate what Bea Spachner has done, Roosevelt drags us into court," says ATC chairman David Smerling. Control of the Auditorium will be decided in a trial next spring; repeated efforts to settle the matter out of court have failed. Though Roosevelt's initial court victory was overturned by an appellate court, board of trustees chairman James Mitchell remains confident that the university will prevail when all the facts are laid out in a full trial: "We are the rightful owners and operators of the theater."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Chris and Paul Rohe photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.