Read All About It

Another independent bookseller gives up the ghost

"We're living on the proverbial paycheck to paycheck," says Mayor Julie Morgan. "We've been in bad shape for ten years. That's why this project is so important to us."

Or, as Rock Hill Alderman Edie Barnard puts it: "At this point in time, if it didn't happen, it would be very dire."

In the works for eight years, the Market at McKnight, which is to take shape about a half-mile east of the Book House, is considered Rock Hill's life preserver. It's expected to generate about $625,000 a year from sales taxes. The city had a chance about five years ago to bring in a Wal-Mart and Sam's Club, but a public outcry prevented it and the retail center ended up on Hanley Road in Maplewood, which was then facing bankruptcy. That development deal, which like the Market at McKnight was partially funded through tax-increment financing (TIF), has added $2.5 million to Maplewood's bottom line.

Turn the page: Michelle Barron can't afford to keep the Book House.
Jennifer Silverberg
Turn the page: Michelle Barron can't afford to keep the Book House.
Barron: "If they give me a dollar a book, I'll sell it all to them."
Jennifer Silverberg
Barron: "If they give me a dollar a book, I'll sell it all to them."

When completed in the summer of 2007, a seventeen-acre swath that extends from the southwest corner of Manchester and Rock Hill roads will feature a Stein Mart clothing and household-goods store, a Starbucks, a Cold Stone Creamery, a McCallister's Deli and possibly — much to Barron's dismay — an outlet of Books-A-Million, the nation's third-largest book retailer. The 23-acre north side of the development, scheduled for completion the following year, will consist of mixed-used retail and residential development.

Mike Duncan, research manager for the St. Louis County Planning Department, says the county's 91 municipalities have become increasingly more reliant on sales taxes. "By and large, residents aren't big fans of property taxes, so large developments like the one in Rock Hill is a fiscal home run," Duncan explains.

"This is a great area demographically," says Novus president Jonathan Browne. "But what it's suffering from is functionally obsolete buildings."

Michelle Barron says she has been trying for three years to sell her business. For a time she had it listed. Now, she's trying to unload it by word of mouth. There've been no takers — not even close. Efforts to find investors have also failed. Next week, representatives of Portland, Oregon-based Powell's Books — one of the most venerable independent bookstores in the nation — will visit Rock Hill to survey Barron's inventory.

"If they give me a dollar a book, I'll sell it all to them," Barron says, on the verge of tears. "I'm not going to sell it in parts." After a long pause, she adds, "I don't know. It seems the whole tradition of bookselling is collapsing. I'm just tired right now. Really tired."

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