Having sussed out the lay of the land, Erwin now stocks a vast selection of books on knitting, sewing and quilting, which tend to attract customers from the three sewing shops she counts among her Main Street neighbors. Her main concentration is local history, appealing to the tourist crowd. When she realized there wasn't a book about St. Charles' architectural history, she co-wrote one herself.

But even though she does her best to accommodate her customers, and even though the nearest Barnes & Noble is at the Mid Rivers Mall in St. Peters, a twenty-minute drive away, Erwin is battling formidable competition. Amazon and its ubiquitous Kindle have been encroaching on her business. In the past year, she has overheard an increasing number of browsers discuss the books they plan to buy for their e-readers. Polite to a fault, she does her best to ignore them. "It can be a real bitch," she confesses. "An author said during a signing that she buys all her books on Amazon, and I couldn't help it. I said, 'So, when will you be having a signing on Amazon?'"

Beginning this month, Erwin will sell e-books, too. In December the American Booksellers Association, the trade organization for independent bookstores, partnered with Google to set up an e-bookstore; for $225 a month, indies can link to the site. It's a considerable outlay for a small business, but Left Bank and Subterranean have already signed up. Seven major publishers, including Random House, Penguin and HarperCollins, sell e-books via Google's store. Prices are set by the publishers, so sellers can't undercut one another, and the stores keep 30 percent of the net profit. The e-books are compatible with every e-reader device — except the Kindle, which only works with books purchased through Amazon.

Vicki Erwin at Main Street Books in 
St. Charles stocks local history and 
sewing books for her customers.
Jennifer Silverberg
Vicki Erwin at Main Street Books in St. Charles stocks local history and sewing books for her customers.

ABA figures show that independent bookstores in Missouri record about $4.5 million in sales every year and generate $315,000 in sales tax. Sounds impressive until you realize that Amazon, which is not required to charge sales tax because it has no physical presence in the state, cost Missouri $184 million in tax revenue in 2010, according to a study undertaken by the University of Tennessee. That figure is expected to reach $234 million by 2012.

"Amazon is a model of tax evasion," says Kris Kleindienst, Jarek Steele's partner at Left Bank Books. "They have every piece of the pie. It's unhealthy for the culture. If you spend one dollar with us, it will be reinvested in the community. The impact will be three times greater than from a chain store. People think they can't afford to buy a $15 paperback—"

"—But they can afford to fix an axle on their car that broke while they were driving over a pothole," Steele finishes.

In addition to bringing in tax revenue, independent booksellers and their advocates firmly believe that bookstores make their communities...well, nicer.

"If you live in a neighborhood, what do you want to see?" asks Craig Heller, a developer who has, for the past decade, worked to revitalize downtown St. Louis. "You want to be safe. What else? You want restaurants, services, a post office. If you live in a walkable neighborhood, what do you want to walk out and do? You want a bookstore where you can have a cup of coffee and hang out."

That's why, two years ago, Heller invited Left Bank to open up a second location at the corner of Tenth and Locust streets. According to the arrangement, he would own the store for the first three years, and Kleindienst and Steele would manage it. "Left Bank produces tax revenue and jobs locally," Heller reasons. "Why support a company in Seattle?"

The plan was that Left Bank would take over ownership of the store after three years. But while sales have increased each year, Left Bank remains unable to sustain itself without Heller's help. "Our biggest fear," says Kleindienst, "is that we'll be stuck with debt at two stores. We can't carry the debt at one store. And Craig's a developer — we've noticed that real estate is not a good business to be in right now."

For independent booksellers to survive, they must prove to the community that they can play a vital role other places can't.

Nikki Furrer has experimented with involving customers in the inner workings of Pudd'nhead by asking them which books they think she should keep in stock. (She initially referred to it as "working" at the bookstore — a common fantasy of book-buyers who've never known the tedium of dusting shelves or doing inventory — but quickly had to retract and explain that no one was going to get paid.) Recently she invited David Clewell, Missouri's poet laureate and a professor at nearby Webster University, to help her improve the store's poetry collection. Though Clewell remains a loyal Left Bank customer, he spent an afternoon at Pudd'nhead suggesting titles.

Similarly, when Todd Dean, a professor of psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine, heard about Subterranean's troubles, he offered to underwrite the store's psychology section. "He says shrinks are great readers, and if we have the stock, word will spread," says von Plonski. "There's nothing like having an expert help you build a section."

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