Louie's banishes books to basement

New owner of cafe to focus on food and live performances

January 02, 2000|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

When Louie's Bookstore Cafe reopened last month after closing in September for a change in ownership, longtime customers walked through the door to find something different about the literary enclave: the books were missing.

Patrons were pleased to discover that the 19-year-old offbeat restaurant in the Mount Vernon neighborhood featured a new stage for musicians, an elegant lounge area, an expanded menu and faster service.

But the shelves of novels and literary journals that gave Louie's its bookish feel have been banished to a windowless room in the basement, where a few volumes are displayed next to the men's room.

"We can't compete with Barnes & Noble or Borders or Bibelot bookstores, so we aren't going to try to," said the new manager, Scott Sunshine. "Bookselling is a very difficult business, and we are restaurateurs."

A trendsetter among cafe/bookstores that was one of only a handful of book shops in Baltimore City during the 1980s and early '90s, Louie's has faced increased competition as four large bookstores have opened in the city in the past two years.

A Barnes & Noble superstore opened at the Inner Harbor in October 1998. The Baltimore County-based Bibelot opened two large stores, in Canton in November 1998 and Cross Keys in September 1999. The Peabody Institute opened a cafe and bookstore around the corner from Louie's in September.

And Bank of America may include a Borders bookstore in an apartment and retail complex it plans to build at Eutaw and Baltimore streets.

This is a time of rising competition for booksellers across the country, as a dramatic expansion by national chains has combined with a challenge from Internet-based booksellers to put many smaller, independently owned bookstores out of business, according to industry veterans.

Nationally, the number of independent bookstores has fallen -- from 5,200 in 1992 to 3,400 today -- as the national chains have tripled the amount of floor space devoted to selling books, said Richard Howorth, president of the American Booksellers Association.

"What's happening in Baltimore is what's happening in many, many places around the country," Howorth said. "The onslaught of competition has made the business less fun for the independent booksellers. Now, many are asking whether it's worth staying in business anymore."

Paige Rose, co-owner of the 8-year-old Mystery Loves Company bookstore at 1730 Fleet St. in Baltimore, said, "I will always resent Barnes & Noble and Borders for destroying the wonderful flavor of the independent booksellers."

When Louie's opened in 1981, it was one of the first places in the region where people could nibble desserts and browse through books. Now, almost all new bookstores offer books and food, said Brian Weese, owner of Bibelot bookstores. "I think the new owners of Louie's made a wise decision to go in this direction," said Weese. "If you don't have a lot of experience in bookselling, it is difficult to make money out of it these days."

Much remains the same

Much about the new Louie's, which reopened Dec. 12, is the same as the old restaurant -- regarded as an institution by many who frequent Mount Vernon.

The cafe, which was opened by painter and community activist Jimmy Rouse (son of the late James Rouse, developer of the Inner Harbor), still features exhibits of paintings by local artists and performances by violinists, guitarists and jazz musicians.

The pillars are still accented with gold leaf, the walls are painted red and purple. Still hanging from the ceiling is a chandelier from the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. And the waiters still serve martinis behind a 45-foot-long black marble bar.

But the new owner, Biagio Scotto, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating the restaurant, building a new kitchen, creating a stage and refinishing the floors.

The menu includes the eclectic vegetarian dishes served in the old Louie's. But now it offers more -- both simple comfort food like meat loaf, and trendier dishes like venison, mahi-mahi and honey-glazed duck.

In place of the bookshelves at the front of the restaurant, the management has clustered lounge chairs, tables and palm trees to create a living room for customers who want to relax beside the stage.

A few books are scattered on tables. But a sign directs patrons downstairs to the book section.

Miss the bookishness

In a cramped, former storage room with pipes running along the ceiling, a clerk sits alone behind a table amid shelves with a scattering of books and magazines. On display recently in the claustrophobic vault was "Gone Fishin' " by Walter Mosley and "Memoirs of a Geisha" by Arthur Golden.

Sean Beattie, a 26-year-old nonfiction writing student at the Johns Hopkins University who tends the cash register, said that he'd sold one book so far that day and had about six visitors. Meanwhile, the restaurant upstairs bustled with life.

"There's definitely less foot traffic down here," said Beattie. "But we hope to expand our inventory and make it succeed."

Customers on Thursday said they liked the food and decor, but many added they were saddened by what they felt was a symbolic demotion of books to the cellar.

"I think it looks fabulous, more elegant than it was before," said Dorothy Stoltz, a 41-year-old librarian from Timonium who has been going to Louie's for years. "But without the easy access to the books, the restaurant seemed like it was missing something."

Susan Fetter, a math teacher from Idlewylde, said: "I miss the old atmosphere, the bookishness. Going down into that basement to look at books isn't what I consider a good atmosphere."

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