R.I.P. Prairie Avenue Bookshop
November 24, 2009
When Victor Hugo wrote that the book would kill the building, he obviously hadn’t considered that in 150 years a digital information revolution would transform knowledge of all kinds. Even Jules Verne had nothing about cyberspace in any of his science fiction. Now that Google has digitized half the texts in the Harvard library, it is time to be scared about the death of the book itself. The news is not good.
As an architect and historian I have collected beautiful architectural books for 40 years and delight in every new volume I read. I’ve spent many happy hours looking over the catalogs of architectural booksellers like Ben Weinreb in London and Geoffrey Steele in Pennsylvania, when they were in business. And, like most architects of a certain age, I’ve gotten my share of catalogs from the Prairie Avenue Bookshop in Chicago. It’s been an old friend who I never thought I’d lose.
So I was saddened and surprised to read today of the demise of that venerable repository of knowledge about buildings, cities, gardens and other constructed objects. The current economy has taken its toll on all booksellers, even giants like Amazon and Borders, so I might well have suspected that smaller stores would be threatened. But still I cannot quite accept the fact that a supporter of great architecture like Prairie Avenue is gone. Marilyn and Bill Hasbrouck are entitled to a restful retirement, and I wish them well. But there is something wrong when the profession loses a vital repository of the best in architectural publishing.
Our buildings and environments are better when designers are literate. Young architects read too many blogs and play too many computer games already. Like most aesthetes, architects love beautiful books, and occasionally read them. Take away a source of those books and fewer literate architects will emerge from behind their computer monitors. Rest in peace, Prairie Avenue Bookshop. You’ll be sorely missed, and no Kindle can replace you.