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Success by Design

How did these people build a thriving business on nothing but books about architecture?

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By Harold Henderson

Dana Buntrock vividly remembers her first trip to the Prairie Avenue Bookshop more than 20 years ago, when she was a 17-year-old architecture student at Tulane. "Two girlfriends and I made a detour through the south side, got shot at or imagined we got shot at, and probably had our hair standing on end" by the time they arrived at 1900 S. Prairie. Marilyn Hasbrouck, the store's proprietor, met them at the door. As the conversation developed, Buntrock says, "Marilyn told me I had to buy a book that had just come out." The book was The Language of Post-Modern Architecture by Charles Jencks.

No one in a bookstore had ever told Bunt-rock what to buy before, but she shelled out the $10. She wasn't sorry. "It was one of the most important little books to come out while I was a student," she says. Knowing about it earned her respect at school. "I had scooped all the brilliant boys who usually discovered the important books first."

Since then, the Prairie Avenue Bookshop has been a pioneer in two other dubious city neighborhoods, and as a result its name has long been misleading. It's now located on Wabash just south of Van Buren, practically underneath the el tracks. South Wabash may be on the way up, but the store remains sandwiched between a parking lot and a currency exchange.

From the side, the only building in Chicago devoted exclusively to books about buildings is a standard two-story brick affair stretching back to the alley. The front is dominated by two four-by-six arrays of dark rectangular windows that call to mind the Daley Center, except that they're framed by white terra-cotta and brown brick. White lettering across the upper panes proclaims "Books on Architecture & Design" and "pabook.com."

The front doorway takes you through the glass wall but not directly into the store. You enter a tiny foyer and round a corner into a larger space, but you still have to turn two more corners to reach the main book area. Marilyn's husband, Wilbert, a restoration architect who's now retired, designed the interior and credits the idea to Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright's characteristic indirection here serves the purpose of enabling the storekeeper to eyeball customers as they come and go.

Once inside, you can climb six steps or take the "lift" to a softly lit room that feels like someone's library--large, gracious, a touch formal. Marilyn swears that people have asked her if the books are for sale. Head-high bookshelves cover every wall, the shelves slanting downward just enough so that books can be displayed face out without falling off. (At the store's previous locations, the shelves were flat, and sometimes books would topple over after hours; the Hasbroucks would get a call from security reporting "motion in the shop.") Just above eye level, a gold on light green stencil runs around the room with the names of more than 300 architects, from Vitruvius to Koolhaas, in random order. A huge oval wooden table stands near the center of the room, piled with new books waiting to be shelved. Up one more flight are the used and out-of-print books.

This comfortable space has its origin in a preservationist picket line. In the summer of 1959, Wil Hasbrouck was a 27-year-old architect from rural Iowa by way of Iowa State who worked in the building department of the Illinois Central Railroad. Unlike most of his colleagues, he'd taken a liking to the grandeur of Chicago's older buildings, and he spent a few lunch hours carrying picket signs at 64 W. Randolph, where Richard Nickel, John Vinci, and others were protesting the demolition of the Garrick Theater. Wil regrets that he never got a look inside.

On a warm Saturday that fall, Wil and Marilyn and baby Charles went to visit Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House in Hyde Park. Marilyn was more than happy to go. "I was a math teacher," she says in her level, precise tones. "I was interested in geometry," so learning about architecture "was just a natural."

Since the public wasn't allowed inside Robie House, they went on to the Oriental Institute. There they saw a postcard tacked to the bulletin board, inviting all comers to a meeting of the Chicago Heritage Committee to discuss the Garrick Theater. "We went to the meeting," Marilyn recalls. "They had collected a big box of clippings on the Garrick, and they decided they needed a newsletter to get more people interested. We volunteered to put the clippings in order. Tom Stauffer [the committee's spark plug] said, 'If you're going to do that, you can do the newsletter too.'"

In preparing the newsletter the Hasbroucks learned about offset printing, a new process by which you could print from typewritten sheets of paper rather than having to set type. Soon they got a chance to publish something larger. The activists who wanted to preserve old buildings were also fond of Chicago's lakefront, and they questioned Mayor Daley's building McCormick Place there. In the spring of 1961 the Hasbroucks published a few hundred copies of a long essay by architect Douglas Schroeder, "The Issue of the Lakefront," for the Heritage Committee.

Wil had long since been haunting used bookstores and collecting out-of-print architecture books. Difficult as it may be to imagine, 40 years ago the reputations of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and their Prairie School colleagues were at a low ebb. (The Robie House furniture, for instance, had been stored in an attic at the Chicago Theological Seminary and was almost impossibly dirty when preservationists unearthed it.) Old books and architectural drawings were being sold cheap for the same reason that developers felt free to tear down many of the buildings the publications described. The destruction wouldn't stop unless people learned to abhor it. Marilyn and Wil decided to expand their learn-as-you-go publishing enterprise and start selling reproductions of out-of-print architectural classics. They chose to publish under the name "Prairie School Press."

In the fall of 1961 they had a printer who did work for the Illinois Central make 250 copies of Louis Sullivan's A System of Architectural Ornament, which was then out of print (as it is again today). Who would buy it? They sent out 12 review copies and got 12 reviews, which led people to write them for copies. And they sent a mailing to a few dozen people who'd mentioned Sullivan in letters to various newspaper editors over the previous five years. "The books sold like wildfire at $15 apiece," says Wil. "We printed another 250, and they sold out too." When he found a copy of Wright's The House Beautiful for $250 ("It'd be $25,000 today"), they reprinted that too and began to build a mailing list. The list is now well over 20,000 names long.

The same zeal led the Hasbroucks to launch the Prairie School Review in 1964. Their friend Rob Cuscaden edited the Illinois Central's magazine and published a little magazine of his own called Poetry Midwest three times a year. "We were out driving around one nice day," says Wil, "and I forget which of us first said, 'You know, we should do what Rob does--a little magazine about architecture.' We didn't have sense enough to know what a big job it was."

Devoted to what they call "the only indigenous modern architecture in America," the Prairie School Review included contributions from the few surviving Prairie School architects as well as many up-and-coming architectural historians. Even its illustrations were chosen with an eye to technical accuracy. "Nothing is so successful as an accurate measured drawing in recording architecture," they wrote, "be it the smallest carved detail or a multistoried facade." They produced 49 issues over 14 years, and back issues are still on sale at the shop. "Some of my fondest memories of our early marriage are sitting at the dining-room table with Marilyn," says Wil, pasting up the magazine "with two little boys underneath playing with the pieces of paper we cut off." The two boys were Charles, now a Loop architect, and John, a graphic designer and marketing manager of the Prairie Avenue Bookshop.

"We mailed the first issue to everyone we could think of," says Wil, "and soon had 250 subscribers--which was enough to pay for the first issue." The subscriber list eventually grew to more than a thousand, but it was never large enough for the magazine to pay for itself. Their mail-order book business had to grow in order to support the magazine. So the Hasbroucks started buying architects' libraries, adding value by cataloging them, and then selling the contents piecemeal. The magazine in turn brought them to the attention of people who had libraries to sell.

As a storefront, the Prairie Avenue Bookshop dates from 1974, when the grandson of Chicago architect Joseph Llewellyn decided to move out of his grandfather's house in suburban La Grange and sell part of his library. Joseph Llewellyn had opened an architectural office after the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, just as the greatest economic depression in American history up to that time was enveloping the city. His practice--primarily designing schools and banks--survived his bad timing, and in 1899 he became president of the Chicago Architectural Club. In that post he helped organize a group of similar city clubs called the Architectural League of America. The books he accumulated along the way--including a wealth of "catalogs" put out by individual clubs, in which member architects were listed and their projects illustrated--made his library a treasure trove.

The Hasbroucks bought 1,000 books from the grandson, expecting to sell a few items at a time, as usual. The University of Texas offered them $10,000 for the lot. They picked themselves off the floor and used most of the proceeds to open a store at the once fashionable address of 1900 S. Prairie, next door to H.H. Richardson's Glessner House. The building, which also would accommodate Wil's architecture office, had been standing empty for a year. Says Wil, "Prairie Avenue was at its nadir when we moved in."

Without the original Chicago School of architecture, there would have been little to preserve. Without its leftover, undervalued papers and books, there could have been no Prairie School Press or Prairie Avenue Bookshop to support preservation. Wil likes to quip, "Half the architects in the world are in Chicago, and the other half wish they were." This may be hyperbole, but the Prairie Avenue Bookshop is evidence that the Chicago architectural tradition produced rich enough soil to nourish and inform later generations of the profession worldwide.

"We rode and helped promote the preservation movement," says Marilyn. But by 1974 she was ready to go beyond those roots. "I was adamant that we would have all kinds of architecture, but no castles....I wanted an architect who might have come in for just one book to be able to see the full range of choices available. You can go into any chain and get the well-known titles, but you can't get the backlist or see the range." The store opened with lofty ambitions and 200 new titles. Marilyn kept track of them on typewritten four-by-six index cards. A Japanese journal, Global Architecture, had just started publishing, and Prairie Avenue was the only place in the U.S. where it could be bought. Marilyn put copies in the window, and people came around when the store was closed just to look at them.

By 1978 the neighborhood was seeing a resurgence of activity, so the Hasbroucks put 1900 S. Prairie on the market. It sold quickly. Harry Weese offered them the best spot in the Donohue building, at 711 S. Dearborn--or what might have been the best spot if anyone had ever gone down there in those days. The first factory loft in Chicago to be converted into residential and commercial condominiums, it had been a printing plant around the turn of the century. "We were among the first" on an almost completely vacant block, Wil says. "The only other occupied space at street level was Casey's Bar." Weese asked that the bookstore's front door open off the lobby, not off the street, so that the Hasbroucks could keep an eye on things and provide a token form of security.

It proved to be a great location once Printers' Row took off in the late 70s and early 80s. "My customers followed me," says Marilyn, "and a couple of them bought lofts." The store's inventory climbed into the thousands, and its annual catalog grew fat. One day a college junior from Idaho, hoping to attend architecture school at Harvard, came in with $300 and asked, "Where should I begin?" His question sparked Marilyn to compile a minicatalog for beginners, "Building a Professional Library: A Student Guide." Now in its 16th edition, its eight pages list a mere 219 of the store's 15,000 titles. This kind of helpfulness led the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects to give Marilyn its distinguished service award in 1984. "My biggest compliment," she says, "is when a student comes in with the list and says, 'My professor handed this to me and said, start with these.'"

Marilyn says she could tell by customers' ages what kind of books they'd be interested in. "Freshmen and sophomores would go straight to history. Juniors and seniors and up through their 20s would go to the monographs. Around age 40, they'd go to building types--'What do you have on libraries?' The teachers would head for theory." Then there were the high schoolers who wanted to be architects because they were fascinated by visual things. Marilyn, the former math teacher, would ask them, "How are your math grades?"

Your best friend might not ask that question, but your personal bookseller would. Those who know the history of Chicago bookselling will recognize this style of assertively helpful salesmanship. A few blocks north of where the Prairie Avenue Bookshop is today, Kroch's & Brentano's once sold more books than any other store in the country on the strength of an enthusiastic and seemingly omniscient staff. But there were some things second-generation owner Carl Kroch wouldn't do. He wouldn't specialize, and he wouldn't discount, even when Crown Books came to the Loop in 1981. "I have 19 stores," he said at the time, "and I have 19 no comments." The overall market for books has mushroomed since then, but his stores are no more.

Unlike Kroch's & Brentano's, the Prairie Avenue Bookshop is highly specialized--though it defines "architecture and design" broadly enough that home owners, contractors, and engineers can find books to their liking. Its current catalog includes David Young's Chicago Transit and Joel Rast's Remaking Chicago: The Political Origins of Urban Industrial Change. Also unlike Kroch's & Brentano's, the store discounts new titles and best-sellers. Of course, they're not the usual best-sellers: at the beginning of April, pabook.com listed Typography: Macro- & Micro-aesthetics by Wili Kunz, Yale: Art & Architecture Building by Ezra Stoller, Park and Recreation Structures by Albert H. Good, and Palm Springs Modern by Adele Cygelman.

What remains from the Kroch's & Brentano's era is the clubby tradition of personal service. "We have customers who call and warn us when they'll be in," says John Hasbrouck. "They ask us to set aside new books that we think they'll be interested in."

The Hasbroucks don't bad-mouth chain stores. "Borders performs an extremely important service," says Marilyn. "They bring a wide spread of books to the educated general public, but they cannot home in on any particular specialty." She aims to prosper by offering what they can't.

Sometimes that means just having lots of books in stock. John tells of a customer from India who'd been unable to find Herman Hertzberger's Lessons for Students in Architecture. He E-mailed Prairie Avenue, which had the book and shipped it right out. He wrote back, "You cannot know the extent of my happiness."

Sometimes it means knowing who wants what you just got. "Someone will call and request a book we don't have," says Wil. "Six months later it shows up, and Beth will call him back. 'We have what you were looking for.' People love that." Store manager Beth Eifrig was hired in 1988 after answering a help-wanted ad that referred to "mail order." Her background was in economics and she knew little about architecture. "I knew who Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe were." She's become the store's memory bank. If you need to learn about the work of an architect too obscure to have inspired a whole book, Eifrig might tell you what articles, if any, have been published. "Or someone says, 'I was in your shop on Dearborn, and there was this really great book, and it was red.' It's fun. I mean, really fun. I enjoy the challenge of tracking these things down." Even an unsuccessful search has its uses, Marilyn adds. "People call and ask, is the new book on such and such out? And Beth finds that it hasn't been written yet. Publishers call her and ask what people are asking her about, what they should publish books on."

The store is also popular with those who need little or no guidance. Orders from architectural firms, universities, and other institutions arrive in all forms--E-mailed, faxed, typed, even handwritten. "I go there and buy books all the time," says Ralph Johnson of Perkins & Will. "It's a great resource."

By the mid-90s, the neighborhood on South Dearborn was jumping, but you could hardly swing an elbow inside the store. "We had eight, nine thousand titles, and we could hardly move," says Wil. He thought about an empty storefront he often passed en route to lunch at the Cliff Dwellers Club. It had been empty, then housed in succession a coffee bar, a dance studio, and an art-supply store that left in the middle of the night. South Wabash wasn't quite as remote as Dearborn had been in 1978 or Prairie Avenue in 1974, but it was still an urban question mark. "The real estate agent was concerned," says Wil, "because so many of the previous tenants had gone bankrupt on them."

They took over the storefront in September 1995. "Everybody was shocked when I moved in here," says Marilyn. Homeless people would walk into the store. The Hasbroucks credit Mayor Daley for helping to improve the neighborhood and the Loop in general.

These days walk-ins are more likely to be out-of-town visitors. When they started asking where other bookstores were, Eifrig thought she'd make a list and photocopy it for their convenience. Then Adam Rod, an assistant commissioner in the city Department of Planning and Development, came around and encouraged the Hasbroucks to think about something more ambitious than a list. Using their list of all the bookstores south and east of the river and north of Roosevelt, Rod sent out a letter calling a meeting of what became known as the Greater Loop Book District--just a name for a marketing association, not to be confused with districts that enjoy taxing powers. Twenty-one stores joined. Each store's dues varied according to how much exposure it wanted in the group's foldout brochure "Bookshops in Downtown Chicago"--a spot on the map, a paragraph description, or a description and a photograph.

Seventy-five thousand copies--designed by John and complete with a cover letter from the mayor ("This is a great book town")--are being distributed by member stores and by the city at libraries and tourist meccas. The brochure might enlighten Loop regulars as well. It includes stores specializing in music books, psychology books, travel books, African-American books, art books, academic books, religious books, and used books, along with two Crown locations and two unclassifiable generalists, Marshall Field's and Sandmeyer's.

Rod is now an assistant to the mayor. He says that as the Loop redevelops, Daley wants to make sure it doesn't look like Anywhere, USA. "Some chain stores, especially upscale chains, are not bad. They will be popular and part of the mix. But we also want the unique stores, and we want to take care of the ones that are already here," including the members of the Greater Loop Book District.

This February, Marilyn published the Prairie Avenue Bookshop's 50th newsletter. The top two news items were the forthcoming 1,092-page tenth edition of Architectural Graphic Standards ($202.50 with a discount) and the newsletter's new availability on the Web. The store has been on the Web since 1995, but Marilyn is sure that physical location still matters. "Architecture is an art," she wrote, "architects are visual professionals, and architecture books are and will remain artistic products which must be seen to be appreciated." In fact, she says, over-the-counter sales are a growing proportion of the store's business and make up more than half of its sales.

Now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago's school of architecture, Dana Buntrock is herself in a position to tell young bookstore customers what to buy. Last semester she sent all 170 of her students to Prairie Avenue. "They told me it was too expensive to go in that door, because you never get out with only what you'd planned on buying." Buntrock has been known to buy books more often than milk. "But I don't think of books from Prairie Avenue as an expense--they definitely have too high a return. My students will figure that out too in a few years."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.

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