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Read 'Em and Weep

Final Sale at Booksellers Row

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By Jeffrey Felshman

No one opens a used-book store to make a lot of money, and Howard Cohen's first shop was almost an afterthought. He'd knocked around the book business a bit, managing the paperback department at Kroch's & Brentano's in the late 1960s and serving as midwest sales representative for Grove Press. He'd worked as a grip on a made-for-TV movie by Roger Corman ("a remake of Jackson County Jail," Cohen says), then headed down to Mexico to drink in the sunshine. When he returned to Chicago, he thought he'd either "do massage or open a used-book store."

Cohen opened the first Booksellers Row in 1978, on Lincoln Avenue just north of Montana. "About three months after I'd opened, a woman came up to the register with a book," he recalls. "She didn't have the money to pay for it right then, so she asked if I could hold it for her. I said, no, I won't hold it--take it with you and pay me later." She did come back to pay for the book, and Cohen later married the woman, Alison James, who also became a partner in the store. The third partner, Paul Berlanga, started as an employee.

In 1980 Cohen moved the store a block south on Lincoln. He had his reasons. His old landlord had tripled the rent, for one, but the new location was closer to the Biograph theater. "At the time the Biograph was an art house and many foreign films played there," he says. "People who watch foreign films have to read subtitles, and people who are willing to read subtitles will buy books."

Apparently the strategy worked. Business was good enough to allow Booksellers to expand. A second store opened downtown in the Fine Arts Building in 1988. Now Cohen wasn't just near an art house, he was in the same building as one. He says the invasion of the chain stores was still in the future when he began to think about opening a third location, this one in Wicker Park. "The old People's Gas building on Milwaukee Avenue was available," he says. Its beauty turned his head. "It was the prettiest building on the street, very pretty."

It became very expensive. The storefront on Lincoln was about 2,200 square feet, but the space on Milwaukee sprawled 6,500 square feet. There was room for a coffee shop, magazine racks, and even an office in the basement that he donated to the literary magazine Letter eX. He stocked both new and used books.

There wasn't a chain store within miles of the place, and up to that time, Cohen says, "There was no Borders, no Barnes & Noble. The chains were afraid to open in Chicago because of Kroch's." When the chains eventually came to Chicago, discounting best-sellers up to 40 percent, Kroch's held the line on prices and succumbed in 1995. Booksellers Row was having its problems too.

"We thought we were the slickest motherfuckers in the world," Cohen says. "We thought Wicker Park was gonna go gangbusters." It did, but not for them. Sales were lousy. Alison James took an outside job to bring home a paycheck. Debts mounted, and the shop on Milwaukee closed in early 1996.

Sales were down in the other stores as well. The area around the Lincoln store had changed dramatically. Cohen watched as university students and his older regulars were priced out of the neighborhood. Residential permit parking made finding a spot near the store a major headache ("We didn't get any permits," he says), and the Biograph began to show more mainstream Hollywood fare. He really got worried when the Kinko's closed. "Kinko's don't close," Cohen says. The Booksellers on Lincoln followed in May 1997.

Cohen isn't sick of the used-book business, but he is tired of being in debt. He plans to close his last store, at 408 S. Michigan, at the end of this month. Sitting in the cashier's island surrounded by books, a handmade sign listing sale prices on the wall behind him, he listens as two customers beg him to reconsider. Politely, the answer is no. He'll close sooner, he says, "if someone makes a good offer for all the books."

While he points to a general decline in the number of bookstores, and James says reading for pleasure seems "almost a part of a bygone era," both are upbeat about closing. They're selling their remaining stock cheap. "We want to celebrate what we had," James says. "We had a very good run." Cohen says he might even get back into the business sometime, but not anytime soon. "I'm going to get a job," he says dreamily, "and bring home a paycheck."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.

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