Band of Bookstores: Facing extinction, indies unite to show us everything they bring to St. Louis that Amazon can't

Band of Bookstores: Facing extinction, indies unite to show us everything they bring to St. Louis that Amazon can't

January is a bad month for booksellers — the holiday rush is over, nobody feels like shopping — but this past January at Subterranean Books was worse than usual. When Kelly von Plonski, the store's owner, tallied sales figures at the end of the month, she found that Subterranean had done 25 percent less business than it had the previous January — and that one hadn't been exactly stellar either.

Von Plonski set up shop in the Delmar Loop in 2000. The street had once been home to a veritable Murderers' Row of bookstores, but the other shops — Delmar Books, Paul's Books, Twentieth Century Books — had gradually closed their doors, until only Subterranean remained. Originally Subterranean sold mostly used books, but as more and more used-book buyers did their business via the Internet, the store switched to new stock. In the family of St. Louis independent bookstores, Subterranean established itself as the cool teenager, the place where you go to buy Beat novels and music criticism and fat volumes on art and design, stuff you won't find on any of the syllabi at nearby Washington University.

But a few years ago, sales began to drop. 2010 was the store's worst year ever. From April on, revenue plummeted to unprecedented lows. Von Plonski could barely afford to pay her bills. She stopped allotting herself a salary. She started returning every book that sat on the shelf for more than six months, even the books she loved. She appealed to her landlady for a reduction in rent — $21 per square foot for the 1,200 square-foot space was standard for the Loop but high for a bookstore — to no avail.

Owner Kelly von Plonski shows off her fiction 
Jennifer Silverberg
Owner Kelly von Plonski shows off her fiction section.
Subterranean Books' storefront in the Delmar Loop.
Jennifer Silverberg
Subterranean Books' storefront in the Delmar Loop.

Subterranean rallied for a respectable holiday season, and von Plonski dared to hope that the trend might be turning around, but then came January.

"I can't do another year based on last year," she says. "I just can't. But I also don't want to be one of those stores that puts up a sign that says we're closing next week."

In the end she compromised. On February 2, in the wake of a nasty ice storm, she e-mailed newsletter subscribers and posted a message on the store's Facebook page: "We have 5 months to turn our sales around or else we're out of business Sept 1. We created a survey to figure out what's right, what's wrong.... Thanks for your help."

At this point, you'd think, von Plonski's competitors would be circling like hyenas, licking their chops as they plotted ways to take advantage of Subterranean's impending demise. After all, three other general-interest independent bookstores call St. Louis home; many larger cities get by with less. And a corporate mega-rival, Borders, was verging on financial collapse.

Instead, though, von Plonski's rival indies did something unexpected: They rallied behind Subterranean. Within a week the owners of Left Bank Books, Pudd'nhead Books in Webster Groves and Main Street Books in St. Charles had joined with von Plonski to form the St. Louis Independent Bookstore Alliance, pledging to work together to ensure they'd all have a future.

When Pudd'nhead proprietor Nikki Furrer got wind of Subterranean's plight, she decided that what von Plonski needed was a drink. By the time they met up at the Bleeding Deacon in south city two days later, von Plonski had received several hundred responses to her survey.

"The good news is that people don't think we're doing anything wrong," she told Furrer. "They said we should set up a website. We have a website. It's on the e-mails we send them! How can they not know we have a website?"

"You should move," Furrer suggested.

"I can't move," von Plonski protested. "I have no money. If I had a pile of money, I'd buy the old Commerce Bank building on South Grand. I'd get a liquor license and stay open late. I'd put in beautiful shelves, like at McNally Jackson in New York, and I'd order tons and tons of books. It would be so awesome."

"You need a business plan and investors," Furrer said. "If it's good, the money will come."

Von Plonski looked dubious. "I actually did look into it, a few years ago," she admitted. "They wanted $900,000 for the whole building or $30 a square foot to rent."

Though they share a profession, von Plonski and Furrer are a study in contrasts. Von Plonski is 40 years old, soft-spoken and reserved. She moved to St. Louis from Austin twelve years ago in search of a lower cost of living and has worked in bookstores ever since. By her own admission, she's not much of a schmoozer and, since the birth of her son Henry in 2009, she has done most of her work from home.

Furrer, four years younger, is loud and brash, fueled by infusions of espresso and Parliaments. Most days she holds court behind Pudd'nhead's counter with her dog, a poodle-cocker spaniel mix (also named Henry). She takes obvious delight in trading gossip and informing regular customers what they're going to read (and buy) next. Before she opened the store two-and-a-half years ago, she was a literary agent in New York, and she still works her connections to bring in writers on book tours. Thanks to visits from husband-and-wife evangelists Joel and Victoria Osteen, novelist Walter Mosley and Mary Pope Osborne, author of the bestselling Magic Tree House series for children, Pudd'nhead had turned a profit in January.

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