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Movin' On Up

Keith Peterson thinks the second floor of the Fine Arts Building will be better for the book business than a basement in Wrigleyville.

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A steady stream of would-be customers flowed through the door at Selected Works bookstore last week, undeterred by the protests of owner Keith Peterson. "I'm not really open--I'm in the throes of moving," he explained to one after another, waving a hand over the sea of boxes that surrounded his desk at the shop's longtime home, the basement at 3510 N. Broadway. Most of them peered into the chaos of the shop and advanced down the steps anyway. "Really," Peterson would say, mustering a sterner voice, "we're closed." For the past month--ever since the moving-sale signs went up--business has been booming, he says: "If it had been like this all the time, I wouldn't be leaving."

It's been a bad year for bookstores, big and small. A few months ago Andersonville's Women and Children First, one of the city's handful of remaining independents, sent out reports of its impending demise; it was pulled back from the brink by a surge in business created by shocked customers. And Borders, the giant that ate so many of the independents, is now in trouble itself. As soon as tenants can be found to take over the leases, it will close half of its eight locations in the city: the Hyde Park store and those on North Avenue, Broadway, and Clark. Used-book stores like Peterson's, whose quirky offerings and crowded aisles have always been bibliophiles' happiest hunting grounds, are also vanishing, the owners retreating to Internet sites run from their bedrooms or kitchens.

Selected Works is an exception. Though Peterson's vacating his Wrigleyville location, where he's run his business for 23 years, he's moving into a second-floor space in the Fine Arts Building, at 410 S. Michigan. He'll have just 1,000 square feet, about half what he had on Broadway, but the ceilings are twice as high and he figures he can shelve the same number of books. Customers definitely won't be dropping in off the street--they'll have to seek him out, arriving via rickety time-capsule elevators with human pilots. Peterson, who hopes to open in mid-August, has already hung a beacon in his window over the arch of the building's north entrance--a quaint green and orange neon sign announcing "Used Books and Sheet Music." It looks right at home above the bustling sidewalk tables of the Artists' Restaurant and next to Tango Chicago ("no partner necessary"), but it's a risky move. Two used-book stores have failed in the last several years at the Fine Arts Building--and they were at street level.

Booksellers Row was there for a dozen years, closing in 2000. Owner Howard Cohen says that what took him down was mainly an overambitious expansion into Wicker Park (one of three Booksellers Row locations), but "the Michigan Avenue store was never great." According to Cohen, who now operates only Howard's Books on the quiet corner of Maple and Foster in Evanston, "We didn't get a lot of people coming in. And when there was the most traffic--say, during Taste of Chicago--we did the least business. It wasn't really conducive." When Booksellers Row left, another used-book dealer, Rain Dog--which had been a couple of doors away--moved in, hoping to make it by adding a coffee shop, Cohen says. Rain Dog moved out suddenly, in 2005, and was recently replaced by the Alvin Gates photo studio. Cohen thinks the second-floor location will be tough for Peterson: "I don't see where he's going to get his traffic from. Not doing street level--that means he's pretty much dealing only with dedicated people who are looking for him."

Peterson, whose selection favors philosophy and the classics, has a sideline of used sheet music and music scores, which amounts to about 20 percent of his business. This makes the Fine Arts Building an ideal fit, he says. His old neighborhood had changed as writers and students moved away, and meanwhile his costs on Broadway kept increasing; he'll shave a third off his rent by moving to the Fine Arts. And the place is a "hub for classical music," he says, full of studios and teachers. "Everyone who walks through the door of that building is a potential customer."

Lee Newcomer's Performers Music has been on the ninth floor of the Fine Arts Building for 26 years, and he says the location is "excellent." Performers--which sells new printed music, including a lot of classical pieces and show tunes--draws customers from the students who come to the building for music lessons, Newcomer says. It doesn't hurt that Roosevelt University is next door and Orchestra Hall is just down the street. "The fact that we're up on the ninth floor is unusual for a retail store, but that's offset by the fact that we're selling something they're looking for. I think Selected Works will fit in with the kind of people we have here already." Peterson, who visited Newcomer before signing his lease, says that if Newcomer hadn't made him feel welcome, he wouldn't have gone ahead with the deal. That spirit of cooperation is "not standard in the business world," Newcomer says.

After spending a lifetime in bookstores--he worked at Kroch's & Brentano's, the University of Chicago Bookstore, and Aspidistra--Peterson feared he might have to "change directions totally," he says. Instead he's giving it another shot. He's optimistic about his new store, where he thinks he might even be able to teach some classes in the Homeric Greek he loves. "But I wouldn't do this move unless I had to," he said last week after a day of transporting shelving via U-Haul. His gross sales have been about $70,000 annually, with 10 percent of that now coming in from the Internet. "But these last few years I've barely been breaking even. I wouldn't have lasted another year if I tried to stay in the old location." At this point the Fine Arts Building, in all its funky glory, looks like an ark.

Our Money's On . . .

Roosevelt University's Auditorium Theatre was gearing up this week to announce a hush-hush coming attraction: a "very powerful and important" opera that's spurred conversations about racism, starring the divine Denyce Graves. Graves and director Kenny Leon were to be on hand for the revelation on Thursday. No confirmation by press time, but I'll eat my Google access if this isn't Margaret Garner, score by Richard Danielpour and libretto by Toni Morrison, based on the true story that also inspired Morrison's novel Beloved.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Keith Peterson at Selected Works' new locaiton photo by A. Jackson.

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