Fittingly, one of them was George Orwell's 1984.

Amazon is selling more books, but it isn't helping the publishers any. "Amazon generally demands an exploitative discount schedule from the publishers," explains Jeff Waxman, a bookseller at 57th Street Books in Chicago and the creator of the blog Against Amazon (http://againstamazon.tumblr.com). "Publishers are selling more books because Amazon is such a juggernaut, but they're making less money. They're selling something for less than it's worth, and the money's evaporating."

So where does that leave independent bookstores, with their comparatively low sales volumes and devotion to ink-and-paper books, which they sell at the full cover price?

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.

Scott Phillips, for one, believes there will always be a place for independent bookstores, at least for curious and adventurous readers. A good bookseller knows what her readers want to pick up next; Amazon can only use its algorithms to venture a guess. "When I go to Subterranean," he says, "I never know what I'm going to find. Many times, I find something wonderful, something I never knew existed."


On March 1, the St. Louis Independent Bookstore Alliance holds its first official meeting at Pudd'nhead Books, consecrated with that bookstore-gathering staple: wine served in plastic cups. Representatives from thirteen new and used bookstores across the metropolitan area show up. (A fourteenth sends regrets but wants to be involved in future events.) Jarek Steele presides, from an overstuffed armchair he shares with Henry (the poodle, not the toddler). "This is the most exciting thing that's happened to me in at least a year," he declares.

At first the gathering has the feel of a support group. No one seems to know their stores exist, the shopkeepers commiserate; there's no good computer inventory system for used bookstores; young people are only interested in turning old atlases into laptop covers.

The only point of contention is...Amazon. "I'm sorry, I love Amazon," says Deborah Herrington, who, along with her husband Peter, owns the venerable used-book temple Dunaway Books on South Grand Boulevard. "We sell 45 percent of our inventory online on Amazon — eBay got too expensive."

Herrington's fellow used-book sellers make noises of agreement.

"Most of the damage Amazon does is to new bookstores," Steele acknowledges. "I know you can't have a used bookstore anymore without it."

The elephant in the room having been gracefully stepped over, Peter Herrington declares, "Everyone in this room is my friend and associate. If we are competitors, I would have failed."

Herrington has never met any of the other booksellers before tonight. That doesn't stop him from offering to share his stock with the other local used-book dealers. As if wishing not to be outdone, Steele invites the new-book contingent to Left Bank's meetings with publishers' reps.

The conversation meanders: Would a universal coupon for all Alliance members work? Might it be better to sell a "passport" that can be redeemed for discounts once customers get stamped at a given number of stores? At what point do universal discounts lapse into price fixing? ("If the justice department came after us, that's the best thing that could happen," protests Steven Hoffmann, co-owner of the Archive, a used-book newcomer on Cherokee Street. "Think of the publicity!") Should they incorporate as a nonprofit? How will they cover start-up costs? Firecracker Press on Cherokee Street has agreed to print the maps at a discount and design a logo for free, Web designer Jim Dunn will take half his fee in books, and Steele and Furrer have already sold tickets for the bookstore cruise. Still, what's a fair amount to ask everyone to chip in?

Peter Herrington settles the debate by pulling out his checkbook and writing a check for $50, which he hands to Steele with a flourish. "If we keep talking, I won't live long enough to see this thing started!" he exclaims. Steele promises to open a checking account first thing in the morning. On that basis, he is elected the group's president. Furrer makes it official by refilling all the plastic cups with wine.

The Alliance has had a rejuvenating effect on everyone involved, but on Kelly von Plonski most of all. Instead of despairing, she has become cautiously optimistic. In the six weeks since Subterranean announced it was in dire straits, business has picked up. February's sales made up for the devastating losses of January.

"I always thought about working with the other bookstores," von Plonski reflects, "but I never got around to it. It was on my list. Maybe what it takes is a fire under you to get things done. I love what I do. I wish it weren't so hair-pullingly difficult. To not have to worry about bills for one week, to order in everything I want to order in...."

She trails off. "If Subterranean went under, I'd go work for Brad [her partner, who runs a computer business], doing bookkeeping, that sort of thing. I'm lucky in that I have a backup."

She pauses. "There's nothing fulfilling in that at all."

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