Band of Bookstores: Facing extinction, indies unite to show us everything they bring to St. Louis that Amazon can't

Mar 17, 2011 at 4:00 am
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.

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,, 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 ( "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."