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 
section.
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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23 comments
susieque2
susieque2

Sorry, I haven't been into the bookstore for a while. What would help economically is if the bookstores sold textbooks for college classes, especially used ones. A nice selection of how-to books would be good. You just don't want to drag that reader thing under the car with you. Advertising a how to book in a section devoted to the same subject on Craigslist is free.

Bunny N
Bunny N

I just tried to find some used book stores in the STL area but only like 4 out of the 50+ stores have decent websites. I don't exactly know how search engine marketing works, but book stores need to get on top of getting themselves known on the internet. At least make it so that if I type "used book stores st louis" your store comes up and I don't have to do detective work to find out where you are. It's even hard to find book stores on sites like Yelp and Citysearch. So yeah, Amazon might be killing indie stores, but they're not using the internet to help themselves either.

ConradVonSupertramp
ConradVonSupertramp

I found this paper, and then this article off of a suggestion from a friend. I'm an independent publisher, and business consultant, and lover of bookstores truly inspired to see the kind of people I hope to associate with already making a mark on the 21st century gorilla warfare of business. Can't wait to take the tour. Good luck.

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guest
guest

I have some honest constructive criticism for Left Bank books. I live in downtown St. Louis and have been to their store a few times and bought a couple of books. I'm politically conservative and I read a lot (and I buy a lot of books). Now before the scowls come out, don't make the assumption that I'm some kind of hatemogering rube-- that template is just another tired old form of prejudice that needs to go.

There were a lot of good books at LBB, but the political section was HORRIBLY skewed to the left. I was looking for a few big name books written by conservative authors which were selling huge at the time, nationwide- yet were completely absent from the shelves there. I understand you guys may hate people like Sarah Palin, George W. Bush etc--and maybe by not carrying their books, you're making some statement, but I don't think you're aware of how unwelcoming that kind of omission bodes for the local reader who is open minded, yet politically on the right. I may be going out on a limb, but I think you have your noses in the air just a little and give off an impression of looking down on those on the other side of the aisle-- I had cash in hand ready to spend, but since the product wasn't there, I had to take my business to Borders.

I saw some petition on your counter complaining about "whitewashing"-- the underrepresentation of "people of color" on magazine covers. I felt like screaming at the top of my lungs about the lack of diversity of thought in your book selection. It was laughable.

I don't want you guys to fail. I want you to succeed. Part of that success is going to be whether you want the hard earned money of people like me, I'm not some easily reduced caricature of what you think a conservative is. I wasn't always conservative either; you should have seen me ten years ago-- In those halcyon days I would have made you guys look like Ann Coulter! :)

I think if you really want to capture market-share, you have to take a look in the mirror and decide to offer a selection of books that is more welcoming to those outside of your own political milieu. I used to be a 20-something slacker working in a record store, scoffing like those guys in the film HIgh Fidelity whenever somebody would come in looking for something lame. I realize now that those "schmucks" spent a lot more money than the kid who had good taste in tunes but was going to either buy used CDs or download everything for free.

The thing about conservatives, is that like it or not, we are hard working and have money to spend.

When we go into Borders and see that the smart a*s people working there have snarkily hidden Sarah Palin's book in the Fiction section, or have filed George W. Bush's book in the True Crimes, we make a mental note of that nastiness-- it's a chain, what do the hourly people at Borders care whether they sell more books? They're not personally invested. You guys can go in the other direction and present these books along with the stuff more akin your own beliefs and let the readers make their own selections.

I like going into a more intimate, independent bookstore where my ears aren't bludgeoned by James Blunt piping through the speakers (lame), and where the environment is a little more cozy and relaxing-- a place where I could get lost for a few hours. I want to go where I feel like my business is wanted and where I feel like my beliefs are treated with some modicum of respect. Reach out to us a little, we're out here.

Thanks for listening.

ralpheatsbeef
ralpheatsbeef

Indies need to re-define the battle. They cannot compete with Amazon on price and volume ... not with coupons, bookstore cruises, or anything else ... because Amazon can sell the books for less than your cost. Gimmicks cannot overcome the monstrous economic disadvantage.

To survive, you must sell what they cannot. What does Amazon NOT have? People -- knowledgeable, helpful, caring, interesting people. Setting -- A good bookstore is a place people feel they have ownership; a comfort zone with friends and potential friends, and a warmth that cannot be stockpiled in a warehouse and delivered by FedEx on demand. Plot --- Where people and place come together, stories happen and intertwine.

A good bookstore is like a good book, come to life. It is that experience and relationship that sets it apart from the electronic newcomers, with their cold efficiency. You have to get people, especially young people raised in the glow of their many devices, to look up and walk in, and give them a chance to recognize the value you are providing.

You may not be in the business of selling books, as much as the business of selling people, place and plot.

Bill Hannegan
Bill Hannegan

Honestly, if Kelly returns to take charge of her book store, Subterranean will revive. She has to realize that she can't hire anyone to take her place.

Braucau
Braucau

I have felt Subterranean has been mismanaged since I moved to U City four years ago. Look at the second paragraph of this article: the store is consciously stocked with books that neither a popular audience nor Wash U students will want. Who is supposed to buy the stock at a store in the Delmar Loop? I have at least half a dozen grad student friends who have walked in wanting staples like George Eliot, Joyce, or any number of well-known poets and they have come out empty handed. If humanities academics and your average St. Louisian walking in off the street both cannot find the sorts of things they want to read, who will? A couple dozen Looprat hipsters can't keep a bookstore open by buying issues of The Believer every month.

Someone says later in this article that people want bookstores to be community places where "you can drink a cup of coffee and just hang out." Totally agree. Too bad you can't do either at Subterranean. I said all of these things in the customer survey, because I do my civic duty and buy books from them every month or two, but, perplexingly enough, the owner says they only received positive feedback. There's no reason the Loop couldn't support a well-run indie bookstore, but it needs to be managed by someone who knows what he or she is doing. For me, the upshot of this article is that it sounds like the owners are now getting some solid advice from the proprietors of successful stores like Left Bank. Hopefully they'll take some good advice and improve the store.

Tom
Tom

Physical bookstores and public libraries will ALL be gone in 5-10 years. The same thing happened to stories that sold vinyl records. Nothing can be done to stop this evolution. These small bookstores must turn into coffee and bagel shops. That's it.

Laura Hamlett
Laura Hamlett

I may be biased, but Jim Dunn's an amazing web designer and contributor to the community. And he's always available for freelance work. :)

Bill Hannegan
Bill Hannegan

"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."

I think Kelly not being in the shop has hurt more than she knows. When I have bought books at Subterranean, I looked for her and figured she must have sold the place. The lady behind the counter didn't know me and wouldn't take my check. That pissed me off. I haven't been back much after that. I am glad to find out that Kelly still owns the place and I have to say I have huge respect for her previous unselfish efforts to help small, independent businesses in St. Louis through Build St. Louis. She needs all the loyalty St. Louis can possibly give her now. I'll be back buying at Subterranean and will bring along as many friends as possible.

Elyse_kelly
Elyse_kelly

I sincerely hope that the Alliance is a success for all of our independent bookstores. It would be a tragic loss for St. Louis if any of them were to go under. Support our local bookstores!!

Winnie
Winnie

This was an excellent, informative article, and an effective rallying call for those of us who talk the talk of supporting local businesses and loving indie bookstores. I like their efforts to mobilize and band together (and the RFT's idea for a cover that played off of the iconic Band of Brothers image). Er, but that's not to say I haven't bought used books on Amazon (or new books from Borders), either.

Bill Hannegan
Bill Hannegan

Never buy a book again from a chain. What is so hard about that?

Bowen1977
Bowen1977

I think saving this bookstore should be taken seriously! Small businesses are the backbone of the city. Research grants, low interest loans and other such options. If anyone has suggestions or real solutions, please share!

Michael
Michael

It's about time this happened. If they don't band together, there won't be any left.

rw
rw

What a great article! BUY LOCAL BOOKS!

Guest
Guest

Fantastic story! Thank you so much for bringing this to light.

Treasure Hunter
Treasure Hunter

Hey bibliophile friends,<3 the tour idea! While reading this interesting article, I clicked the www.stlindibook.com link hoping to purchase a ticket now while I have the funds, but I didn't find one. Any plans to add a Paypal link soon? The tour sounds like fun. I want a seat on that bus!

Michael Borich
Michael Borich

"A bookstore is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking." — Jerry Seinfeld (SeinLanguage)

Kelly
Kelly

Hmm, not sure whether responding is encouraged or discouraged but here I go. The store is purposely stocked with things that the neighborhood would want--the neighborhood of families, hipsters, students, tourists--which means indie bookstore best-sellers (they tend more toward the literary than the commercial although those terms are hornets' nests themselves), modern fiction, weird humor books based on blogs, children's picture books, etc... all sorts of things that this varied clientele wants. Make no mistake, the clientele of the Loop is extremely diverse. We used to stock a lot more literary classics and academic titles but those don't sell. Each book has to earn its space; we can't afford wallpaper. And the literary classics that do earn their space are almost always in stock (Joyce is one, Eliot not so much--although she used to be until people quit buying her and she got returned). If a book is still sitting on the shelf and no one has bought it then it gets returned. If all of the people who came through our doors in that 6 month period passed up buying that book, well then it gets sent back for something else. I've found that in this neighborhood lots of folks want their classics cheap and used (or downloaded for free)--things we've chosen not to do. We tried the used book route but when one of the main criteria is cheap, well we just can't compete with $.69. We do, however, order in things for folks all the time. Most academics realize that their tastes often run a bit to the obscure and that the economics of a small store mean that we can't possibly stock all the university press titles we'd like to, not to mention that the small press runs of many academic titles means a microscopic discount for the store. We don't serve coffee because we don't want to cut into Meshuggah's business, nor do we have much room for hanging out--we're only 1200 square feet. And what I actually said was that the overwhelming majority of the comments were good and that we were seriously studying the bad ones to see what we needed to fix. That part just got left out of the article. And I'm hoping you'll notice the changes we've made and the programs we’ve instituted and the massive effort we're undertaking to become more a part of the community. That was something I always felt we were lacking in and I think we've made a start in addressing it. And as with the survey, I truly appreciate the feedback and your taking the time to respond to the article.--Kelly

Nikki
Nikki

There are record stores all over St. Louis. Euclid Records just opened a second location in New Orleans, and vinyl sales are higher than they've been in decades.

 
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