Editor’s note: At its Nov. 30 meeting, the Economic Development Committee also considered requests for tax increment finance district funding from C&W Market and Ice Cream Parlor and Whole & Free Foods. That story is here.

Bookends & Beginnings, celebrated as Evanston’s hidden gem and a must-stop destination for book lovers visiting downtown, faces an uncertain next chapter after a city committee backed only a portion of its funding request Wednesday, Nov. 30, for a move to a new location.

Bookends & Beginnings plans to move from Bookman’s Alley, above, to space on Orrington Avenue. Credit: Submitted

Members of the city’s Economic Development Committee (EDC) voted in favor of recommending that the City Council give $83,000 in financial assistance to the business for relocating from its home of nine years in “Bookman’s Alley,” located off Sherman Avenue north of Church Street.

But committee members balked at granting the full $475,606 request from Bookends & Beginnings’ owner Nina Barrett to cover the costs of relocation and build-out at a new location at 1620 Orrington Ave.

The bookstore’s move was necessary after Barrett was unable to agree on lease terms with the new property owner of Bookman’s Alley, who is planning a development that would include the space.

The co-applicants in the development, the Varsity LLC and Campbell Coyle, received special zoning approval from the city earlier this year for an adaptive reuse of the former Varsity Theater.

They plan to develop the property at 1706-10 Sherman Ave. into 35 luxury apartments, which includes the alley that runs parallel to Church Street where Bookends & Beginnings is located.

The bookstore, founded by Evanston author Barrett in 2014, operates in the alley garage space formerly occupied for 40 years by the antiquarian Bookman’s Alley.

NIna Barrett opened Bookends & Beginnings in 2014. Credit: Bookends & Beginnings

At the Wednesday meeting, Barrett told committee members that she received notice that the bookstore’s rent would more than double five weeks after a new landlord took possession of the property.

According to city Economic Development Manager Paul Zalmezak, the new property owner had proposed raising Barrett’s rent from $8 to $18 per square foot. The average rent in downtown Evanston is $27 per square foot, he reported.

Barrett told committee members the rent increase “was not only from the moment we received the letter but he said it was retroactive to five weeks before.”

“You know, all bookstores are very low margin,” she said. “We don’t have a big wad of cash lying around to handle a rent increase like that. And I had been trying to negotiate with him for months. It’s been really difficult. And because I had not reached an agreement with him, two days before Thanksgiving he served me with an eviction. So who does that to a small independent business going into the holidays?”

Steve Rogin, the property owner and landlord for the buildings, who for many years tried to interest the city in preserving the Varsity Theater as a performing arts center, was asked about the situation on Thursday, Dec. 1.

“For the past seven plus years, Bookends and Beginnings has been paying rent at a level substantially under market rates,” Rogin said in a written statement. “In fact, the rent Bookends and Beginnings was paying under the most recent lease was at rate that didn’t even cover operating expenses for the property.

“After numerous attempts to engage with the owner of Bookends and Beginnings over the past five months and offering a lease renewal still under market rates, Bookends and Beginnings continued to occupy the space without a lease,” Rogin said. “Unfortunately, after the repeated inquiries without any action, as a business owner myself, I was forced to protect my rights.

“While it is not the outcome I was hoping for,” he said, “I know Bookends and Beginnings is a very creative and dynamic retailer and wish them continued success in their new home.”

New site may allow food, beverage

Thankfully, Barrett said, she was able to find a new affordable space a few blocks away at 1620 Orrington Ave., in the Hahn Building, owned by the Robinson family. The new bookstore will occupy approximately 4,000 square feet – with half the space in the finished basement, accessed by a stairwell within the street level retail, Zalmezak said in his memo.

In addition to the street level and lower level retail space, wrote Zalmezak, the new site has several bathrooms (the current site has none) and space for lectures/classes and the potential for food and beverage service.

Barrett told committee members, “Though I am not happy about what brought me here, I believe this is an incredible opportunity for me and for Evanston to build a bookstore that serves the community even better, with longer hours and an even better kids section – additional jobs [and] added sidewalk activation on a block of Orrington that has long been retail-challenged.”

 She said, “I was not planning for this move. I do not have the reserves to pay for this move. And that, in a nutshell, is why I’m here. And the reason the request is sort of open-ended is that this has developed very suddenly and as an emergency. So it’s not like I’ve been planning for months to move and, you know, strategize.”

In discussion at the committee meeting, several members acknowledged the special place Bookends & Beginnings holds in the city’s downtown and were sympathetic. At the same, they expressed reluctance at approving the full request with the limited taxpayer-supported funding sources available.

“Please don’t misunderstand, I support the bookstore,” said committee member Lisa Dziekan during the discussion. “But I think we need to have some consistency and be stewards of the money, whatever pot of money it is.”

But Council Member Clare Kelly, in whose 1st Ward Bookends & Beginnings is located, noted that earlier in the evening the committee had talked about giving half a million dollars to a business “that didn’t have a history in our downtown” (though it also included a workforce development program in its proposal).

“This [Bookends & Beginnings] is a business that we know draws in hundreds of people a day,” she said.

The Bookends & Beginnings proposal is not eligible for American Recovery Plan Act COVID-19 relief funds, which the city has used to fund a number of ventures, including $2 million for Northlight Theatre’s relocation from Skokie to Evanston, a staff analysis concluded.

“ARPA is not a general economic development tool,” wrote Zalmezak, explaining the basis for the staff decision in a memo. “The business harm is unrelated to COVID; the project does not service a disproportionately impacted community.”

Kelly pressed a reevaluation of Bookends & Beginnings’ eligibility for ARPA funds, pointing to the city’s allocation of $2 million to Northlight to assist its move back to the city. “Certainly, if Northlight Theatre was eligible, I would imagine this would be ARPA-eligible,” she said.

She noted the negative effect of COVID-19 on the downtown business district, “and I know other cities have used the money to incentivize business expansions and relocations, which this would absolutely be.”

Besides, Kelly said to committee members, “The city brought this on. The city, before we were all elected, approved giving this easement so you can create this Bookman’s Alley little mall, and that same situation is now driving out our beloved Bookends & Beginnings.”

Council Member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, also said he would like to see a reevaluation of the ARPA decision. He also suggested the city “slow down on the grants” that it has been giving, “and maybe pick up on no-interest loans or very, very low-interest loans to help smaller businesses, local businesses, have access to capital without having to give away taxpayers’ money.”

Other concerns

Other committee members raised concern about acting on the full request, without greater information.

Eli Klein, a committee member and business owner, said, “This one [decision] is killing me.” He added he could only hope for his business “to be the community center and force that Bookends & Beginnings is. I know how important it is to so many people and how important it is to Evanston’s fabric and community and culture.

“But, I’m having trouble getting away from the fact that there is no there’s no TIF [Tax Increment Finance district], there’s no grant program, there’s no structure to this,” he said. “I’m uncomfortable with the idea that we are making these kinds of decisions with other people’s money based on personal likes and preferences.”

Angela Pennisi, another member, said where the funds come from to support the request does not matter. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be taxpayers’ dollars,” she said. “And I’m looking at: Are we investing in businesses that I have some sense that there’s been enough vetting that the [business] will be successful in the future? – which has zero to do with passion about books.”

Explaining her position further, she said, “I don’t have any sense of the success or profitability of the business over the long term and whether it will continue to be viable.”

Bookends & Beginnings operates in the alley garage space that was used for 40 years by Bookman’s Alley.

For now, committee members voted in favor of recommending $83,000 in funding for the business through the available funds staff has identified. The proposal is expected to be presented to the City Council for consideration at its Dec. 12 meeting.

That decision, said Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward, chairing the meeting, will then “leave ourselves some time to come back for other sources of revenue,” including a loan, “but we can’t have that conversation tonight,” he said, saying the issue needs more examination.

Barrett was asked if she could wait a month for the committee to consider the $475,000 request as a whole.

“The issue is the space is empty now,” she said. “I have to move into it in January.”

Zalmezak added, “I just want to make sure everybody really understands the urgency is great.” He said Kelly “worked really hard behind the scenes to try to make this [leaving its current space] not happen. [It] did not work out. There’s six weeks left.”

Zalmezak pointed out that Barrett has signed a lease at 1620 Orrington Ave. that requires her to personally guarantee rent payments for three years, putting her assets on the line if the business doesn’t succeed at its new address. He estimated her own total financial obligation in the project is approximately $200,000.

Central to Evanston’s brand

During public comment earlier in the meeting, several speakers spoke of the importance of the bookstore to the community.

“Education, the life of the mind and the printed word are part of the soul of any university town, and books at the center of thought are central to Evanston’s brand,” said longtime resident Jeff Smith, naming four local bookstores that have closed in recent years.

He maintained that the sales tax generated by Bookends & Beginnings, currently more than $100,000 a year, compares favorably with monies the city has extended to other businesses such as Northlight Theatre to relocate here “and will take decades, at the minimum, to recoup.”

Trisha Connelly told committee members, “I find it unfortunate that a beloved independent bookseller that has been downtown close to a decade and survived Borders and Barnes & Noble nearby, is getting kicked out of their space with little help from the city of Evanston.

“I think this is a great time for us as a city, and also as economic development, to think about when these corporate landlords come asking for favors. What are we going to ask of them? Because this situation didn’t have to go down this way. And I would hope that we can alleviate that for the future.”

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.

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  1. One of my questions now that I know about ARPA funds is why weren’t they used to help the Unicorn Cafe not go out of also the fish store formerly “the fish bowl” on Dempster st. Stay in business. It had just been bought by a young woman who worked for Barb the previous owner. I’m also curious of mean rates of rent in other business districts including Dempster, Main and Noyes and Central where you see a lot of independent businesses. Are these rates transparent to public? I don’t live in Kelly’s 1st ward now I did vote for her when I did. While the city collects revenue from parking meters, why not lower rates at library and at Orrington St. to generate traffic on Orrington on busy hours in downtown on sat and after 5pm? That was a deal breaker between me and previous alderman during election.