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What Happened to Rizzoli International Bookstores? Part I

The Rizzoli Bookstore being forced to close, essentially because the real estate it occupied is too valuable to be occupied by a bookstore is a matter of history repeating itself. Founded in 1964, Rizzoli Bookstore occupied 712 Fifth Avenue until January of 1985. Adolph S. Gottlieb designed that first Rizzoli building, which Cartier previously occupied.

It was one of two five-story townhouses – the other being the Coty Building at 714 Fifth Avenue – that a developer planned to demolish to make way for a skyscraper, the subject of a challenge by the Municipal Arts Society in front of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, as Jesus Rangel reported in The New York Times. While the Municipal Arts Society argued the building at 712 Fifth Avenue was itself noteworthy, they contended it was the windows in the Coty Building that were worth preserving when it came to light the French craftsman Rene Lalique had made them for Francois Coty’s perfume shop, a view that eventually won out.

The two buildings – the Rizzoli Building and the Coty Building – were combined with a third townhouse to house the Henri Bendel Flagship store in 1990. According to Charles V. Bagli, “Developers ultimately incorporated the facades of the Rizzoli and Coty buildings into a 50-story tower at 712 Fifth Avenue, home to hedge funds, investment firms and an Henri Bendel store.”

Bagli recently related in The New York Times that “The architect Hugh Hardy was brought in to restore the onetime mansion to its original glory. From the old store, Rizzoli brought over four chandeliers, the hand-carved marble door frame and portions of the cherry wood paneling.”

Edwin McDowell reported in The New York Times on March 22, 1985 when Rizzoli opened the new flagship store at 31 West 57th Street that it was around the corner from the previous location and the company had a twenty-year-long lease. “Among the guests were the writers Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne and Theodore H. White, the photographer Francesco Scavullo, the artists Robert Haas and Stephen Edlich, plus numerous publishers and literary agents, diplomats from a half-dozen nations and many Italian leaders from the worlds of business and culture. Several European officials of the parent Italian-Swiss publishing company flew in for the occasion.”

The only fixtures transferred to the new store, on the site of the Sohmer company's former piano showroom, were the hand-carved marble doorframe, four hand-wrought chandeliers and portions of the cherrywood paneling. These fixtures were integrated with the existing 32-foot entrance arch, and the carved-in-place ceiling moldings were glazed in an Italian fresco manner.

McDowell stated the new store was 6,000 square feet, which made it nearly one-third larger than the old one. Rizzoli, which had purchased Scribner Book Stores in December of 1984, moved its American headquarters into two floors above the flagship Scribner Book Store in the Scribner Building before the Rizzoli flagship store moved to the new location on 57th Street.

At the time Rizzoli International Bookstores purchased Scribner Book Stores in 1984, Rizzoli had stores in New York City, Chicago, and Dallas and had plans in the works to open new stores in Boston and San Francisco in 1985. Mitgang pointed out in The New York Times that the Rizzoli companies in the U.S. were 50% owned by the Swiss conglomerate Edipresse and 50% owned by the Italian publishing group Rizzoli Editore. Further, the Milanese-based company had itself been troubled, having been managed under court supervision for two years before it was purchased in October of 1983 by a consortium that included the holding company Gemina, banks, and industrial interests.

Gianfranco Monacelli, who started as a clerk at the Rizzoli store Fifth Avenue store in 1965, rose up to become president of the company, a post he retained after it became a Swiss-Italian joint venture. He founded The Monacelli Press in 1994. It specializes in the fine arts, architecture, interior design, gardens and landscape architecture, photography, and graphic design.

In an earlier article published August 22, 1984, Edwin McDowell explained in The New York Times, “It is a highly profitable and rapidly growing bookstore chain, an expanding publisher of illustrated books and it has its own line of phonograph records. Two months ago it opened a store in SoHo. Meanwhile, sales at its Fifth Avenue store are about $4.5 million annually, or about $1,000 per square foot - a figure that Rizzoli officials say is the highest in the book industry.”

Much of this transformation has been accomplished while Rizzoli's parent company has been battered by one scandal after another; millions of dollars in company funds disappeared, its managing director was arrested on charges of fraud and the same managing director was said to have been a member of the secret Propaganda 2 Masonic lodge that has since been outlawed by the Italian Parliament.

The resultant financial and publicity fallout may have been what led Rizzoli Editore recently to sell one half its American operations to… Edipresse.

Monacelli, then forty-five, told McDowell that he believed the Italian publishing company’s sale of half its ownership in its American bookstore subsidiary to a Swiss media company would enable faster growth for the American retailer.
The New York subsidiary’s effective independence from the parent company in Milan allowed for experimentation, as McDowell noted. In 1977, the store began to co-publish art books.

Three years later, the store began to publish books on its own. It recruited authors and commissioned works. McDowell wrote, “Today it originates 40 percent of the 60 titles it publishes in the United States each year…”

Now Rizzoli is the leading American publisher of books on architecture, and it is a highly praised publisher of illustrated books… With money available from… Edipresse… it is planning to broaden its publishing program…

But the backbone of the American operation remains the bookstores, which despite their art galleries and attractive furnishings are now operated as bona fide businesses. Mr. Monacelli says the goal is for each store to do at least $2 million worth of business a year.

Rizzoli opened a store in Chicago's Water Tower Place in 1976 and in 1981 opened another in Costa Mesa…midway between Los Angeles and San Diego. It opened a store in Atlanta in 1976 but closed it last year. Mr. Monacelli said that while it was profitable, the company ‘didn't see any future for it.’ In 1978, after two years of operation, it also closed its store in Manhattan's Union Square, which specialized in foreign language books.

These setbacks did not stop Rizzoli from opening a 2,000-square-foot store at 454 West Broadway in SoHo in June of 1984 and a store in North Park Center in Dallas in July. Rizzoli planned to open another in Copley Place in Boston in September of ’84.

McDowell continued, “Next on the list are San Francisco, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami and Philadelphia. Eventually it hopes to have about 25 stores. ”

Further, McDowell related, the stores Rizzoli planned to open would be about the same size as the flagship store on Fifth Avenue (4,500 square feet) and would “continue to carry large inventories of quality nonfiction - architecture, art, photography and books from university presses,” as well as “a sizable selection of foreign magazines and newspapers, …[and] classical music albums.” At the time, fiction account for less than 15% of sales and foreign language books accounted for less than 5%.

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