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.
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.
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.

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.

"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."

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."

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.


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."

Some booksellers see their stores as cultural institutions, an integral element of their city, like a library or community center.

"Our focus is on creating partnerships in the community — it's the only way to survive," asserts Lanora Hurley, owner of Next Chapter Bookshop in the Milwaukee suburb of Mequon, Wisconsin. When Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, visited Next Chapter last month, Hurley got the entire town involved. Restaurants donated food (eat), a local health club hosted the event and offered yoga classes (pray), and theaters sold "date night" packages at a silent auction (love, of sorts). Four hundred people paid $29 to attend; admission included a signed copy of Gilbert's latest book, Committed.

"[Partnerships] double our marketing reach, sometimes triple it," Hurley explains. "And if you're going to say, 'Buy local,' it means putting your money where your mouth is and working with local nonprofits and the local independent community."

Hurley works with her fellow booksellers, too. Though her relationship with Daniel Goldin, owner of Boswell Book Company, is informal, every season when publishers send out lists of authors who are going on tour, the pair goes over it together and determines who fits best with a visit to Next Chapter in the suburbs and who'd do better in the city at Boswell.

"It's in our best interests to get authors to Milwaukee," Hurley reasons. "The publishers only send [authors] if they think we can do a good job."


I have a great idea," Furrer tells von Plonski over drinks at the Bleeding Deacon. "If Borders shuts down the store in Brentwood, let's take it over and have the awesomest bookstore ever. It's the best location, and it's huge. You get a part, I get a part, Melissa gets a part for kids' books, Jay and Left Bank can have part, too."

Von Plonski shakes her head and laughs.

At any rate, after Borders announced on February 16 that it was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and closing 200 stores, the company didn't shutter its Brentwood location (which is among the chain's most profitable). Instead the superstore jettisoned its outposts in Ballwin and at the Mid Rivers and Chesterfield malls.

The Borders bankruptcy racked up some impressive collateral damage. In addition to putting its own booksellers out of work, the company owes creditors more than $1 billion: months' worth of back rent, plus unpaid invoices from publishers and distributors. Penguin USA alone lost $30 million.

"If I'd had any insight, I wouldn't have sold anything to them for Christmas," says Dan Thompson, owner of Big River Distribution, which sells local-interest titles throughout the Midwest. "But they invited me to their fall sales meeting, and I thought I was doing what I was supposed to do: Put books in stores." Thompson declines to divulge how much money he poured down Borders' drain. "These are dark days in the book business," he says. "It's devastating all over."

This isn't the first time superstores have wreaked havoc on the publishing business. Before Barnes & Noble and Borders set up shop in every population center from coast to coast, most booksellers operated like von Plonski: They gauged what they thought they could sell and sent back a handful of unsold books. The superstores turned that model on its head, ordering enormous quantities that they built into towering sales displays, then sent back tons of window dressing, most of which moldered in warehouses or got pulped. The practice incrementally plumped the chains' sales figures — and threw publishers' balance sheets into utter chaos. A title that showed a profit one month would drop deep into the red when the returns rolled in.

The superstores also began to influence what got published — a phenomenon St. Louis-based author Scott Phillips learned the hard way. The Ice Harvest, Phillips' first novel, sold respectably when it was published in 2001. His next two books didn't fare as well.

"When a publisher's thinking about publishing a book, they consult Barnes & Noble," Phillips says. "Barnes & Noble goes to their computer and says, 'Well, this author sold X, Y and Z and descended with each book.' Three books is the cutoff. And if Barnes & Noble isn't likely to order your book, it's not going to get published.

"Barnes & Noble, Borders, Amazon — they could be selling hardware or potted plants," Phillips continues. "The business model of high profits and blockbusters never applied to publishing before."

Phillips published his fourth novel, Rut, through Concord Free Press, a nonprofit publisher that gives away books in exchange for the recipient's promise to make a donation to a person or organization in need.

The superstores didn't stock Rut, but the indies did. That was reason enough for the author to offer to helm a monthly writer's workshop at Subterranean.

Even as people have been buying fewer books, one segment of the publishing business is growing.

E-book publishers don't have to pay for printing, shipping or warehousing, yet they can charge about the same for an e-edition as they would for a trade paperback. And here, Amazon dominates.

"Amazon is doing to Borders what they did to independents ten years ago," says Pudd'nhead owner Nikki Furrer. "Amazon has a frightening monopoly on the written word," adds Left Bank's Kris Kleindienst, recalling how in 2009, during a rights dispute with an e-publisher, the online monolith logged in to customers' Kindles and erased the contested titles.

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?

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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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.

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

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.

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.

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)

 
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