"I don't have enough time to get to know the publishers to bring in people for events," von Plonski continued. "Maybe after — if we survive. We need to get people into the store now."

"You need to change your story," Furrer said.

"I know," von Plonski agreed. "We can't depend on panic buying."

Most days, Nikki Furrer holds court behind the counter at Pudd'nhead Books in 
Webster Groves.
Jennifer Silverberg
Most days, Nikki Furrer holds court behind the counter at Pudd'nhead Books in Webster Groves.
Left Bank Books co-owners Kris Kleindienst and Jarek Steele at the store's downtown location.
Jennifer Silverberg
Left Bank Books co-owners Kris Kleindienst and Jarek Steele at the store's downtown location.

For the next two hours, the two women brainstormed strategies to gain exposure for Subterranean on the cheap. Maybe they could invite people to read aloud from their high school-era diaries? Or maybe not. Furrer noted that this being St. Louis, many of the people mentioned in the diaries were likely to be present in the audience.

But after Furrer got home, inspiration struck. "I just kept thinking," she says now, "about how Kelly put out that survey and people didn't even know she had a website. I'm sick of independents coming forward and saying, 'Come help us.' Our message should be that we're confident about the future and our own abilities. At this point we're all working together anyway. We're all competing against Amazon."

She thought, too, about a friend who'd begun operating bus tours from Pennsylvania to Greenwich Village so people could visit the bookstores there. Why not a bookstore tour of St. Louis? That way rival independent bookstores could show solidarity with Subterranean and lure new customers of their own.

Furrer was so excited, she didn't bother wait until morning to shoot off an e-mail to von Plonski and two potential allies: Jarek Steele, a co-owner of Left Bank Books, the oldest independent bookstore in town; and Vicki Erwin, owner of Main Street Books in St. Charles.

Von Plonski would later describe the missive as "beer-addled." Still, the following week, Furrer, von Plonski, Steele, Erwin and Melissa Posten, Pudd'nhead's children's book buyer, met up for dinner at Pi in the Delmar Loop. By evening's end they had hatched plans for a St. Louis bookstore cruise on Saturday, May 7, with more events to follow.

Additionally, they resolved to establish a website, www.stlindiebook.com, with a comprehensive schedule of every reading, signing and book-related event in St. Louis, along with a weekly local bestseller list. They'd produce a map, to be distributed by the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission, listing the stores, their locations and contact information. And instead of competing for readings, they would divvy up author appearances with an eye toward playing to each bookstore's strengths.

Steele, a shy, balding young man who claims to have been permanently scarred by growing up in Effingham, Illinois, a town with no bookstores, suggested they enter into a formal agreement to work together.

"We could speak in an a cappella group of voices," he explains. "We're not the same. We're all different stores. And on a personal level, it makes me feel better. We're not this little indie twisting in the wind. It feels good to help instead of sitting back and cringing and thinking, 'There but for the grace of God.'"

As far as any of the booksellers knew, no city had ever attempted anything similar. (It turns out one has: West Sound Reads, a cadre of stores along the western end of Puget Sound, banded together in 1996. Its aim was more along the lines of a buyers' collective, though. The area is mostly rural, explains one of the founders, Mary Gleysteen. "Our buyers realized big publishing houses wouldn't send reps to just one store.")

The name, the St. Louis Independent Bookstore Alliance, would come later. But by the time the meeting broke up, the booksellers had parceled out assignments and begun drawing up plans. When Steele arrived home that night, he was too excited to sleep.

The problem with catering to the young and hip is that nobody stays young and hip very long. There may always be a core of readers who live for the chance to spend hours browsing in a bookstore, but von Plonski has noticed that fewer of them have been coming to Subterranean. How do you lure customers through your door when the only book-buying experience they know involves ordering off of Amazon?

If you're von Plonski, you gather your staff for a meeting, and you delegate. She puts 26-year-old Kaveh Razani in charge of coming up with events.

"We could have a DJ spin in the front window and pipe it out onto the sidewalk," he suggests.

"As long as they don't use the plug next to the computer," von Plonski cautions. "That could blow the whole store out."

"I know some guys who can paint murals on the wall," Razani ventures.

"That would be awesome," von Plonski says. "Ask them if they can do it on panels so we can take it with us if we have to leave."

Before the three-hour meeting is over, the Subterranean staff has planned three months' worth of events: a party to unveil a new store T-shirt, a trivia night at Mad Art Gallery in Benton Park — and the public diary-reading Furrer suggested, which von Plonski has dubbed the "Salon of Shame."

No one has come up with a game-changing formula to lure people off their computers or away from the seductions of the superstores — Borders, Barnes & Noble, even Wal-Mart and Costco — and their 30 percent discounts. For most booksellers, getting paying customers through the door remains a matter of trial and error. "As much as you like to think it's a calling, it's a business. And you have to run it that way," says Vicki Erwin, the perpetually smiling owner of Main Street Books. "When I first started, I introduced more contemporary and literary fiction, but it didn't sell."

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