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Another independent bookseller gives up the ghost

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Book House

As legend has it, there is a small chamber on the second floor of the Book House in Rock Hill that was the favorite playroom of a little redheaded girl. It's said she was the daughter of a nineteenth-century prostitute and may have drowned in a creek that once ran alongside the drafty farmhouse. Her restless spirit lives on, or so the story goes.

"It's always been haunted," says Book House owner Michelle Barron. "The first minute I walked in here, I could feel a presence. Doors rattled, things moved."

Today not much is moving, least of all books, and Barron doubts she stands a ghost of a chance of keeping the once-thriving bookshop she bought twenty years ago for $5,000. Like the municipality of Rock Hill itself, Barron has been running against the wind for nearly a decade and is flat broke, yet another casualty of Internet and superstore competition. But unlike Rock Hill, the Book House doesn't figure to pull out of its financial nosedive with next year's much-ballyhooed arrival of a $95.4 million redevelopment project.

"Rock Hill City Hall is running the small businesses out of here. They don't want the independent businesses," says Barron, moving pudgy, reddened hands through her sandy-colored hair. "Basically, no one cares. Everyone says, 'We love you, we love your store,' but we can't even put out a sandwich board so people know where to find us."

(Sandwich boards are prohibited in Rock Hill.)

Within its 4,500 square feet, the Book House boasts 150,000 used and collectible volumes. Another 150,000 books sit in storage. The eclectic selection is impressive, shelves crammed floor to ceiling with nineteenth-century American literature, botanical reference tomes, classics, illustrated children's books, works on art and architecture, dime-store mysteries and old cookbooks from something called Granny's Candy Company. Here you can find the complete works of Roth, DeLillo, Mailer, Steinbeck, Updike. A Grisham potboiler can be had for 50 cents. An almost-new paperback copy of Toni Morrison's Beloved goes for $7. Then there's the vintage first edition of The Hobbit, which carries a price tag of $5,000.

The Book House — unlike more visible independent stalwarts like Left Bank Books and Subterranean Books — has enjoyed a comfortable obscurity, set back off Rock Hill's charm-free business district on Manchester Road, barely 100 yards west of local Tex-Mex fave Nachomama's. Last week, "Huge Book Sale" and "All Books Reduced" banners flapped against the 150-year-old building's peeling cream-color siding. Inside, the gray carpeting is threadbare. The bimonthly cleaning service was canceled months ago. Author events are as distant a memory as the Harry Potter parties and midnight Halloween séances Barron once hosted.

There have been good times for the Book House. But that was way back, says Barron. Before Borders and Barnes & Noble came on the scene. Before and eBay. Back when people felt a deeper attachment to independent bookshops.

"By 1995 I was making money," Barron remembers. "I built a house in Webster Groves. My son went to private school. The store was bringing in $30,000 a month. We had one of the best bookstores in the Midwest. People came from all over the world. Wales, even. And now look at us. I'm lucky to hit half that [$30,000]."

As she speaks in flustered and frantic cadences, it's as if Barron is drowning like the redheaded spook that haunts her store. "I'm almost bankrupt," she says. "I might just have to put the books online and close it down. Or maybe I'll just fizzle out — you know, keep liquidating until there's nothing left."

Barron looks older than her 42 years. She's a single mother of three, and raising two foster children to boot. Her eldest daughter, who's twenty, has cerebral palsy. She's heavily in debt and, because of bad credit, was unable to secure a $30,000 loan earlier this year that would have permitted her to move her store to Maplewood. She's on a $1,800 month-to-month lease with landlord Rex Stahl, whose grandfather, Charles Thomas, bought the building that houses the Book House in the early 1900s. The Stahl family is having the property appraised and may sell it in the near future.

"I'm not going to tear it down," Stahl says, standing outside his foreign-car repair shop, located just behind the Book House. "I just wish the city had some money. They could use it as a library."

In some ways Michelle Barron is an apt metaphor for struggling Rock Hill. Sharing borders with its more prosperous neighbors — Webster Groves, Ladue, Brentwood and Glendale — the one-square-mile city of 4,700 people has been running on empty for a decade. Government is administered from a mini-strip mall, a rented city hall pressed between Missouri Payday Loan and Rock Hill Chop Suey. The city's municipal building, now boarded up, was sold for $3.6 million last August to Novus Development Co. as part of the Market at McKnight deal that city officials are banking on to revive the moribund intersection of Manchester Road and McKnight/Rock Hill Road. A number of small businesses that have gone bust in recent years languish in weedy lots.

Nearly $3 million in debt, Rock Hill is without a fire chief or police chief. There's no money to build a permanent city hall, and roadwork projects are on hold. Empty city positions cannot be filled. Last week, the city had $500,000 in the bank, barely enough to cover salary and expenses.

"We're living on the proverbial paycheck to paycheck," says Mayor Julie Morgan. "We've been in bad shape for ten years. That's why this project is so important to us."

Or, as Rock Hill Alderman Edie Barnard puts it: "At this point in time, if it didn't happen, it would be very dire."

In the works for eight years, the Market at McKnight, which is to take shape about a half-mile east of the Book House, is considered Rock Hill's life preserver. It's expected to generate about $625,000 a year from sales taxes. The city had a chance about five years ago to bring in a Wal-Mart and Sam's Club, but a public outcry prevented it and the retail center ended up on Hanley Road in Maplewood, which was then facing bankruptcy. That development deal, which like the Market at McKnight was partially funded through tax-increment financing (TIF), has added $2.5 million to Maplewood's bottom line.

When completed in the summer of 2007, a seventeen-acre swath that extends from the southwest corner of Manchester and Rock Hill roads will feature a Stein Mart clothing and household-goods store, a Starbucks, a Cold Stone Creamery, a McCallister's Deli and possibly — much to Barron's dismay — an outlet of Books-A-Million, the nation's third-largest book retailer. The 23-acre north side of the development, scheduled for completion the following year, will consist of mixed-used retail and residential development.

Mike Duncan, research manager for the St. Louis County Planning Department, says the county's 91 municipalities have become increasingly more reliant on sales taxes. "By and large, residents aren't big fans of property taxes, so large developments like the one in Rock Hill is a fiscal home run," Duncan explains.

"This is a great area demographically," says Novus president Jonathan Browne. "But what it's suffering from is functionally obsolete buildings."

Michelle Barron says she has been trying for three years to sell her business. For a time she had it listed. Now, she's trying to unload it by word of mouth. There've been no takers — not even close. Efforts to find investors have also failed. Next week, representatives of Portland, Oregon-based Powell's Books — one of the most venerable independent bookstores in the nation — will visit Rock Hill to survey Barron's inventory.

"If they give me a dollar a book, I'll sell it all to them," Barron says, on the verge of tears. "I'm not going to sell it in parts." After a long pause, she adds, "I don't know. It seems the whole tradition of bookselling is collapsing. I'm just tired right now. Really tired."

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