Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Prairie Avenue Bookshop

This is hardly breaking news, but I found out yesterday that the Prairie Avenue Bookstore in Chicago closed its doors this past summer. This was an institution in the Windy City for the past fifty years. I got a big part of my architectural education by visiting the store regularly in my youth (when they were actually located on Prairie Avenue). Over the years the staff was always friendly and informative and eager to fuel two of my obsessions: books and architecture.
In the days before the Tattered Cover and Barnes and Noble made bookstores comfy with overstuffed chairs and a relaxed atmosphere, Prairie Avenue intermixed architectural artifacts and craftsman style furniture with beautiful books. You felt like you were entering a private club where the only membership requirement was a love of architecture. But it was a dangerous place. I would go in just wanting to browse and come out with more books than I could carry or afford. When I realized they would ship my purchases instead of having me lug them back home it only made things worse. Architectural books are expensive. Especially the really great portfolios, like the Frank Lloyd Wright Drawings published in Japan (limited to 700) or the Bruce Goff collection of plates or the Neutra retrospective published by Taschen. They are all gorgeous examples not only of architecture, but of the publishers art. You don’t find them in regular bookstores.

As the name implies, Prairie Avenue specialized in prairie school architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Burley Griffen, Purcell and Elmslie, and the bright array of inventive architects that came out of Chicago in the early twentieth century. The shop’s location was significant in that it helped cement Chicago’s reputation as the birthplace of modern architecture. Their loop location was surrounded by surviving examples of Louis Sullivan buildings, the first “skyscraper”, and the el trains that made it possible for commuters to reach prairie school suburban homes in Oak Park or Evanston. The inventory of the Prairie Avenue Book Shop also reached into other branches of architecture, following the modernist movement to the present day. It was the best architectural book store in the country and its closure is a significant loss for Chicago. I will miss it.