Rizzoli USA

Rizzoli, a name you can probably find on some of the art books you own, first immigrated to the United States in 1964, although at the time it was a name on the front of a bookstore only. That was the start of Rizzoli International Bookstores. Rizzoli International Publications was not established to release books here until 1976.

Rizzoli Editore of Milan had looked across the Atlantic and glimpsed an American market that was likely to buy books - its own and those of other publishers, in English and in Italian.

The debut bookstore opened its shiny doors on New York's classy Fifth Avenue to a chorus of oohs and ahs. Few people had ever entered such an elegant environment in which to purchase books - marble floors, oak paneling, sparkling chandeliers. A number of American publishing sages predicted that it wouldn't last. All those lire invested would soon slip down the drain, because no one needed such a luxurious bookstore.

Maybe no one did, but it flourished anyway, and it's still thriving on Fifth Avenue, although it will be forced to move to a nearby location soon when the edifice housing it is razed. In fact, similar Rizzoli stores (although with emerald green carpet instead of marble floors and recessed lighting instead of chandeliers) are attracting customers in Chicago, Dallas, New York's SoHo district, and Costa Mesa, Calif. (south of L.A.). The newest link in the chain will open in Boston in December.

They make a fine showcase for the cultured books Rizzoli International Publications print.

Sherrie Murphy, Rizzoli's director of promotion, publicity, and advertising, says, ''Gianfranco Monacelli, who started in the New York store as a night clerk , saw a gap in the art book field. Abrams had changed its editorial direction, moving more toward books like 'Gnomes.' New York Graphic Society had been bought by Time-Life. Praeger wasn't doing so well. There was a need for someone else to publish a line of art books.''

Today Monacelli is president and chief operating officer of Rizzoli in America, and he sees to it that Rizzoli purposefully stands apart from such art book houses as Abrams or Abbeville. Rizzoli International Publications does not publish books on non-art subjects - nothing on movies or orchids or seashells or gnomes or faeries. What Rizzoli does publish every year are 60 to 70 hard covers and paperbacks on art, photography, fashion, music, and - most particularly - architecture, a field in which it claims to be the leading US publisher. Among its recent books have been ''American Folk Art of the Twentieth Century'' and ''The Sculpture of Michelangelo,'' and ''Architecture of the Nineteenth Century in Europe.''

Followers of the publishing industry know that the American book business is just now rebounding from recent debilitating economic times, but these were trivial compared with the tribulations suffered by Rizzoli Editore in Milan not long ago. The Italian publisher stumbled badly from financial and personal setbacks brought on by accusations of misappropriations of funds and political misconduct. A member of the Rizzoli family actually went to prison.

In this country Rizzoli went unscathed because its publishing operations had no connection, either in editorial or production matters, with the company reeling from scandal in Italy. Rizzoli International is run completely separate from Rizzoli Editore. It doesn't automatically publish the books of Rizzoli Editore, nor does Rizzoli Editore publish the titles generated here.

That even holds true for the key title on Rizzoli's fall list in the US, ''Matisse,'' by Pierre Schneider. When this is published in Italy in another year, it will be done by a Rizzoli competitor, Mondadori.

Ms. Murphy says, '' 'Matisse,' which is by the world's authority on the artist, was 14 years in preparation. It's being published in four languages in five countries. It has 752 pages and 880 illustrations, of which almost a third have never been reproduced anywhere before, which is unusual because Matisse is one of the most widely reproduced artists of all time. We have taken 65,000 copies, at a $95 retail price, and we've already sold 55,000 of them to bookstores. We're giving it the creme de la creme treatment. We're calling it the art book event of the year, which it is, and we're spending $40,000 to promote it.''

The official publication date for ''Matisse'' is Thanksgiving, by which time Rizzoli expects to have exhausted its own supply. ''When all the copies are gone , we won't be going back to press, at least not for a year or so,'' says Murphy.

Things seem to be moving fast for Rizzoli International. Recently, Rizzoli Editore sold half of its US operations to Edipresse, a large Swiss firm heavily into book and newspaper publishing, broadcasting, and printing.

Ms. Murphy says that this sale is providing the American Rizzoli with new capital, which will permit more books to be published and an expansion of the bookstore chain as well.

Prospects look rosy, and through stores and books, Rizzoli International continues reaching out to its ''sophisticated'' American clientele, a group that the company says ''has a distinct flair for both the international and the avant-garde.''

''Eventually we'll have 25 stores,'' she says, all of them modeled after the New York store and all of them boasting the same kind of merchandise mix - from the art books you would anticipate to general books, records from here and abroad, an art gallery with prints and graphics, and magazines and newspapers from around the world. Cities being investigated as possible future sites of Rizzoli bookstores include Houston, San Francisco, and Miami.

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