Chapter closes in the life of Louie's Bookstore Cafe

Arts hub could reopen with new managers

September 21, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The music fell silent at Louie's Bookstore Cafe on North Charles Street on Sunday as the 18-year-old restaurant loved for its string quartets and art exhibits closed because its owner wasn't paying the rent.

But Jimmy Rouse, the owner of the building at 518 N. Charles St., said yesterday that he is close to a deal that would resurrect the hangout for students and writers in mid-October under the ownership of an Italian restaurateur.

Biagio Scotto, owner of Scotto's Italian Bistro in York, Pa., said he plans to add Italian fare to the menu but keep the restaurant's name and bohemian look and continue to sell books.

"We're still working on the details of the sale, but I've always admired North Charles Street because of its wonderful culture, and Louie's is such an important icon in this neighborhood," Scotto said yesterday.

Taped to the inside of the restaurant's plate-glass window yesterday was a sign reading:

"Closed Monday until further notice. Goodbye and we love you."

The darkened windows stunned loyal customers in Mount Vernon, a few of whom said they moved to the neighborhood because they loved the cafe's relaxed and artistic atmosphere.

The closure came at a time when the businesses near the Walters Art Gallery have been enjoying a surge, with three more restaurants opening and the Peabody Conservatory of Music building a music store and cafe.

"Louie's is of paramount importance to the neighborhood. It's a fixture in all of our lives," said Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Gallery. "I think everyone on North Charles Street can remember some important event in their lives taking place at Louie's."

The cafe is known for its Victorian mirrors hanging on red walls painted with golden flowers, its catfish sandwiches and Japanese pancakes, its shelves full of literary novels and live music by guitar, sitar, lute and violin players.

Its bulletin board has served as a meeting area for the city's artistic and gay communities, plastered with fliers for yoga and aikido classes, a show called "God is a Transexual," requests for roommates and notices reading "Violin Player Wanted."

The owners of the business and the 518 N. Charles St. building gave different explanations for the restaurant's closure, with one attributing the failure to management and the other blaming competition from national bookstore chains.

Rouse, the son of developer James W. Rouse who built the Harborplace mall on the Inner Harbor, bought the restaurant from Kramer Books in 1981 -- intending to focus more on the artistic life than his father.

Rouse named the cafe after his son Louie and ran it for more than 15 years -- bringing in roughly $2 million a year in gross business during the early 1990s -- before selling it to Catherine Ronalds in March 1998 so he could work full-time as a painter and community activist.

He remained owner of the building, however, and lent Ronalds' company the money to buy the restaurant.

Rouse said yesterday that he filed for foreclosure last week because Ronalds' company, Old Sport Inc., was seven months (about $70,000) behind in its lease payments and had not made a loan payment in a year.

"In the retail business, you have to keep changing and adapting," said Rouse, director of the Charles Street Association. "Louie's needed to keep changing. Unfortunately, the last two managers haven't been able to do that."

Ronalds, former manager of a catering business in New York City, said Louie's lost money in part because the opening of national bookstore chains -- including a Barnes and Noble on the Inner Harbor -- lured away her customers.

While crowds remained strong on Friday and Saturday nights -- drawing 500 customers an evening on recent weekends -- attendance dropped significantly during the week and over the summer, said Ronalds.

In an attempt to compete with Barnes and Noble and other large book chain stores, Louie's began to shift its selection away from literary novels to books in specialty markets like the arts and philosophy. But that wasn't enough.

"This has just broken my heart," said Ronalds. "We had a very lovely closing last night, I said goodbye and all the employees left without a scene. But it was very sad and a number of people had tears in their eyes."

If negotiations move ahead as planned, Scotto and his business partner Enrico Esposito said they hope to reopen around Oct. 15 and alter Louie's menu by adding Italian dishes such as scallops marinara over linguine.

Scotto said he may add a selection of international magazines and newspapers and will talk to his customers about what they want to remain the same and what should change.

"I came from an old town in Italy [Naples] and the monuments in Mount Vernon really caught my eye when I came here," said Esposito. "We looked at the Inner Harbor, but it's all brand new there. There isn't much that's all brand new in Italy."

Pub Date: 9/21/99

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