The shops are failing! The shops are failing! Across America, retailers are freaking out as the rise of online commerce has led to a wave of store closures. And while the rise of websites like Amazon have made it possible to get any number of products delivered to your door in 48 hours or less, the loss of brick-and-mortar shops has been tough on city dwellers.
It's not just that dollars leave our community for Seattle, or San Francisco. Or that good jobs helping customers have turned into jobs dashing desperately around warehouses or throwing packages onto porches. Even from a strictly selfish point of view, the trend is bad for shoppers. Consider this: In many parts of town, there's no place where you can pick up a cute gift or a book or a sweater on the day you need it. (Should have thought of that 48 hours ago!) No longer can you benefit from the sensation of touching, smelling, weighing the product you're about to purchase. No longer can you trust what you're buying. No longer can you browse.
But all is not lost. Not even close. The RFT's Melissa Meinzer recently dug up a study by the Washington-based National Retail Federation, which collects data on Americans' shopping habits. The organization's Consumer View polled 3,002 consumers over five days in July 2017, and it found that half of millennial and generation Z consumers reported shopping in stores more than they did the year before. And only 21 percent made more than half their purchases online.
It's not easy to survive in this retail landscape, but those numbers suggest it's possible — and, indeed, we found no shortage of St. Louis shopkeepers who are making it work. From the venerable Left Bank Books, which has staved off any number of challenges since its 1969 founding, to LARK Skin Co., which started online but recently opened a storefront in Webster Groves, some savvy retailers are finding ways not just to survive, but to thrive.
In the midst of the doom and gloom of 2018, we're excited to tell their stories — and we hope you'll find them as inspirational as our writers did. Maybe reading about them will compel you to open that business. Better yet, maybe it will remind you to shop local this autumn. There are a ton of great stores out there; you just need to remember to get off your phone and show them a little love so it stays that way.
Left Bank Books
For Kris Kleindienst and Jarek Steele, the married couple who own St. Louis' landmark Left Bank Books (399 North Euclid Avenue, 314-367-6731), the Great Retail Panic of 2018 has engendered more observation than trepidation. After all, the "Amazon effect" now disrupting clothing stores and groceries is something bookstores have been battling for almost two decades.
"When Amazon started, it was looking for something to sell online," Kleindienst recalls. "And we were the right people to go after. Books are cheap, and they don't spoil. They picked our industry and went after it."
Really, it's not like things were easy for independent book shops even before that. Rom-com fans may remember You've Got Mail, the 1998 Nora Ephron movie that explored online romance in the age before Match.com. There, Meg Ryan's plucky bookseller wasn't threatened by e-commerce, but rather big chains offering coffee and T-shirts and three floors of stock. Left Bank — founded in 1969 and anchoring the corner of Euclid and McPherson in the Central West End since 1977 — lived through that disruption too, not to mention the fearsome threat that industry watchers were once convinced was posed by the e-book.
"The chain bookstore problems rolled right into the online problems," Steele recalls.
"There was no breather," Kleindienst says.
Yet these days, as the pair's equanimity should indicate, indie bookstores are doing alright... or at least the good ones are. And Left Bank is one of the good ones. Shop owners like Steele and Kleindienst aren't getting rich. ("This is not a profession you do to make a lot of money," Steele hastens to note. "You do it because you love the thing you're doing.") But they are staying alive — and now that they boast several decades of survival in the midst of seriously trying times, they know they present something of a path forward for anxious retailers.
Their strategy, alas, won't work for everyone. They're not selling books the way J. Crew is selling ballet flats and cashmere sweaters or Walmart is selling discounts. Left Bank is selling an experience. It's selling its staff's expertise and curatorial abilities. It's selling community.
And while J. Crew could maybe claim all that, it works especially well in Left Bank's case because its owners do no part of that cynically. Their store is an expression of their values, its selection of items instinctual rather than focus-grouped.
For this bookstore, it's not just about the "Black Lives Matter" sign in the window (although there's long been that) or the fact that Steele is a transman (Kleindienst, too, identifies as queer and had a long history as a lesbian activist before their marriage). Their politics are reflected not only in the obvious nonfiction areas, but also in the children's book selection and the diverse group of authors they book for events.
And while a high-paid bookstore consultant might argue that wearing their politics on their sleeve is bad for business, Steele and Kleindienst have seen enough to know otherwise. They know the people who shop at Left Bank aren't just buying a book — they're making a statement.
"It's a tribalism kind of thing," Steele says. "If you shop here and buy your books here, it says ..."
"Who you are," Kleindienst finishes.
Using your Left Bank bookmark at a coffee shop or on the MetroLink is a low-key way to mark that tribal identity; Instagramming it kicks it up a notch. But you can also take things much further — say, by showing up to one of the store's many, many events. At this point, author visits are such a big part of what the shop does, two full-time staffers run them. Many others help out as needed.
Some of the smaller events, with lesser-known authors, don't contribute much to the bottom line. (The larger ones, held off-site to accommodate hundreds of book lovers, are a different story.) But Kleindienst and Steele are convinced they're still worth it. It's not just that readings get the shop's name out there, or that they establish vital ties to authors who might later star in those off-site money-makers — although both, sure, are part of it.
It's more that, at these events, people can connect ... person to person, not just social-media avatar to social-media avatar. Left Bank has seen customers meet, fall in love and then return to the shop for their engagement photo shoot. They've also seen the way a real-life conversation can open eyes and form friendships across lines of race, class and geography.
Kleindienst remembers a reading just after Ferguson, a night with a packed house. She recalls a white man standing up, earnestly asking, "What can I actually do to change things?"
His neighbor, a young black man, turned to him. "You could start by talking to me."
"You could have heard a pin drop," recalls Kleindienst. The two men, she says, later continued their conversation one on one.
Interactions like that one have her and Steele convinced that there's magic in the community Left Bank has created, magic when people leave their homes to partake in the ancient art of storytelling, or buying pages that contain it. It's the kind of magic that leaves some patrons with stories of their own.
"These people were listening — actually listening," she says of the post-Ferguson reading. "You can't do that on Amazon."
Nor can you find an arrangement of books that's been chosen specifically to expand your horizons, or staffers eager to share their thoughts on which new release you ought to try next. Algorithms can be gamed, and Amazon's "recommendations for you" can easily go off-kilter. A conversation with someone who knows the inventory backwards and forwards? That's what you get from a good bookstore like Left Bank, and that's irreplaceable.
Of the shop's staffers, Kleindienst says, "We all have one thing in common. We never stop getting excited about opening a box of books. And we're able to convey that to people."
It's how Kleindienst and Steele beat Borders, and e-books, and how they're holding Amazon at bay. Well, that and the almost hypnotic peace that can overcome you upon walking into a shop filled with things to read, people to interact with and a cat to pet (however gingerly — Left Bank's Spike being notoriously unwilling to suffer fools, or toddlers, gladly).
"It's a happy place, a supportive place in these dark times of late," Kleindienst says. "We're a refuge. And most days, we're able to sell enough books to pay the rent." You've Got Mail didn't foresee that happy ending, but then again, it didn't anticipate Tinder either.
The E-tailer That Put Down Roots
LARK Skin Co.
For many small businesses, the idea of a shop — an actual shop! — in a cute neighborhood has become an unimaginable luxury. Who has money for rent when all the customers are on Etsy? The retail game has become less about a lovely storefront and more about being able to ship quickly ... or game Amazon's algorithm.
Lisa Dolan, however, has turned that idea on its head at LARK Skin Co. (8709 Big Bend Boulevard, Webster Groves). And it's working. What started as an online store, larkskinco.com (and very popular Instagram account, @larkskinco), is now a cozy Webster Groves storefront within a line of small businesses just off I-44.
"I had no expectations," Dolan says with a laugh. "But I feel like the community really embraces us, and a lot of the other businesses have been great too."
LARK focuses on all-natural beauty and wellness products — something that became especially important to Dolan a few years ago when she was pregnant with her son Liam and thinking through everything she put into, and onto, her body. A cosmetologist by trade, Dolan began mixing up her own chemical-free concoctions in her kitchen and offering samples to her clients. When those took off, she launched larkskinco.com. Her beauty balm and body scrubs soon garnered kudos from Teen Vogue. Urban Outfitters will begin selling her line this winter.
For that, she credits Lark's social media presence.
"We were approached by Urban Outfitters just because of Instagram," Dolan says. "It's been great to get our name and products out there like that."
But despite the success of her digital shop, Dolan was convinced that a retail storefront was the next logical move. She was finding plenty of customers at craft fairs and private events, where her best-selling products were LARK's custom face masks and personal consultations. Dolan tried to recreate those experiences by offering custom products online but found that the necessary back-and-forth between LARK experts and customers via email or Skype was a bit too cumbersome.
Then it hit her: Why not launch a space where personal interaction and tailored products could take center stage?
"There's nothing else like it in St. Louis. At all of our events, we were doing the custom face masks for people, and that was by far the biggest seller. I just really saw the need to have that in-person experience for people to come in and actually touch the products, smell the products and really get great products that are completely tailored to their skin type," Dolan says. "Just from traveling to the places that I have, I've seen it work in other cities. I thought if we brought this to St. Louis, people would be interested."
Dolan found the perfect location just down the street from her Webster Groves home.
"We actually had been looking for a warehouse space where we can make the products and where I could do hair and skincare," Dolan says. "We were going out of town and saw a sign on the window of this little storefront and were like, 'Well, we'll call if it's still available when we get back.'" It was, and so she quickly committed; the store celebrated its grand opening this summer. "This is exactly what I envisioned," she says.
The small store is a sunny, inviting space with ornamental black-and-white tile, high ceilings and displays of Dolan's house-made skincare products (body scrubs, purifying toner, lotion bars, essential oils) on open shelving in Instagram-ready groupings. At the front, the best-selling LARK beauty balm has a place of honor, befitting its importance to any makeup bag or medicine cabinet (it's a cleanser, makeup remover, skin moisturizer and hair conditioner all in one!). On the other side of the shop, customers can find a curated assortment of beauty and wellness products from external trusted brands, such as Pure + Native cleansing bars, Plant People CBD capsules, Wooden Spoon Herbs dietary supplements and Clove + Hallow vegan cosmetics.
But LARK's big draw is the Ritual Bar, where knowledgeable staff members help visitors choose and blend customized facial products. A rainbow of all-natural mask bases and facial oil fragrances gleam on shelves that hover above a station full of additional ingredients, take-home vials and pots, brushes and shallow pottery bowls for mixing products, created by Colorado artist Sarah Welch exclusively for LARK. On event days or by appointment, visitors spend most of their time here, learning about their own skin and talking to LARK's experts about items that will help them glow. The Ritual Bar has become a big draw for bridal showers, girls' nights and gift experiences.
"Just this weekend, we had a bachelorette party here, a little Ritual Bar party," Dolan says. "We have a licensed cosmetologist and estheticians who can make recommendations, and people just get really excited about it. I just had this feeling that it would work!"
"We have an expert here who has a holistic oils certification from Europe, and she's incredible. She put together an encyclopedia of our oils — pages and pages of research on every single oil that we carry," Dolan continues. "Some brick-and-mortar stores are going away, but people still really want unique experiences, so we've been having a lot of really cool, different events. I feel like that's what draws people in."
Dolan has no regrets about shifting from digital to in-person sales, saying that meaningful face-to-face interaction with customers has been a joy. But she has some advice for entrepreneurs looking to follow in her footsteps.
"You're going to have to pivot on what your goals were. Be ready to change a lot and just go with the flow."
Retro 101/Cherry Bomb Vintage
Retro 101/Cherry Bomb Vintage (2303 Cherokee Street, 314-769-9722) is that rare shop that's managed not only to stay alive, with a storefront thriving even after eleven years of huge change on Cherokee Street, but to do so without maintaining a website. But that doesn't mean the vintage store's owners avoid technology. Instead, they've found a way to let other platforms, from Instagram to eBay, work for them.
Co-owners John Klynott and Janet Maevers are 50/50 partners in the business, which Klynott describes as a vintage clothing store with a hint of mid-century modern and collectibles. They specialize in period clothing for both men and women from the 1950s and earlier, but also carry '60s, '70s and some over-the-top '80s clothing, as well as what Klynott calls "quirky, unusual and interesting" items and collectibles.
Klynott has long been interested in salvaging older things, although his focus was originally furniture. As a kid on a paper route, he'd spot garage sales — and have to make a purchase.
"I would bring stuff home and my mother would have a fit. 'Why are you bringing all this garbage into my house?' It was just in my blood since a really early age," says Klynott. Vintage clothing followed when, years later, he bought a jacket from Vintage Haberdashery on South Grand and found himself falling in love with the history of fashion by decade, with a particular interest in the construction of garments. In 2002, he opened a shop of his own.
At first, it was just Retro 101. But in 2004, he ended up merging with Maevers, who'd opened Cherry Bomb Vintage five years earlier. The two met when Klynott was considering opening a store on Cherokee Street; Cherry Bomb Vintage was at the time located at 2016 Cherokee Street.
"That was when we met and we instantly connected, became friends really fast and almost twenty years later, still going strong," says Klynott. "I consider her a family member at this point. Some people think we're husband and wife, others think we're brother and sister. At the end of the day, it's a constant in my life and I'm sure it will continue until the end."
Even as a joint entity, Retro 101/Cherry Bomb Vintage has seen multiple location changes, but it's been at home in its current spot since 2007. Racks hung with vintage clothing reach from one side of the store to the other, while necklaces, bracelets and other kinds of jewelry fill various glass cases. Glass figurines and toys are arranged on shelves, while purses line one wall. The store is packed with items, and Klynott enjoys helping customers find the perfect purchase.
"I love interacting with people one on one and seeing the finished product. Someone comes in; someone leaves with something they really love," says Klynott. "That is the ideal situation."
At the time the two shops came together, the partners created a website. But in recent years, Klynott and Maevers have abandoned it. They now utilize Instagram, Facebook and eBay to reach online shoppers.
To Klynott, their business is much different than other retailers and should operate as such.
"With sellers such as Amazon, they have a product and they have five million of it and they're just trying to push it out the door," says Klynott. "What we're selling is unique, generally one of a kind. Something you can't get at a mall or a department store."
When he posts a picture of an item on Instagram or Facebook, people will like the post or comment to say they want to buy it. At that point, Klynott direct-messages back, giving the customer more specifics, and then gets their PayPal information and sends them an invoice. "It is interestingly lickety-split," says Klynott.
Still, all those one-on-one interactions take time. "It's a full-time job. I don't Instagram every day because I can be completely bombarded for a whole eight hours on Instagram messages," says Klynott. "It gets overwhelming."
Instead, he chooses a day where he spends the morning washing, pressing and photographing a dozen hand-chosen pieces of clothing. He'll dedicate the afternoon to posting them and messaging back and forth with customers until he's made his sales.
If an item bombs, he'll sometimes reintroduce it on social media at a later date. "Sometimes I'll post something and it just wasn't the right time for that specific item," says Klynott.
Retro 101/Cherry Bomb Vintage also has an eBay store, which is generally fully stocked with around 200 items. Local shoppers beware: The items Klynott lists on eBay are often triple or quadruple the price he would realize in the storefront.
"There are things that I list that people would think I was insane if I had it here," he says of the shop.
The online sales, unlike the brick-and-mortar ones, can easily take over his life. But the shop's online presence allows it to reach a much wider consumer base than would be possible with a single location.
"We build friendships with people through Instagram and Facebook with people that we would have never been able to meet from all over the country," says Klynott.
Despite that online success, Klynott would much rather work with customers face to face. Much like the people he sells vintage clothing to, he yearns for a simpler time.
"If I could just depend on the storefront to generate all our income that we need to sustain, I would love to just completely disconnect from my iPhone," he says.
The Fashion Experience
LAUNCH Clothing & Accessories
In the brave new cyber world in which we live, it would be madness to open anything as quaint as a clothing boutique.
Don't tell Lia Glynias that, nor her stylish cadre of loyal customers. Her boutique, LAUNCH Clothing & Accessories (2008 Marconi Avenue, 314-325-6785), has become a Hill mainstay in the two years it's been open. She has a web presence, sure — she's not nuts. But the best stuff often doesn't even make it online, and the IRL experience is far and above the digital one.
To call LAUNCH's wares distinctive is an understatement. Glynias, 37, stocks vegan leather jewelry from a desert-dwelling couple working from science fiction and architecture references. Structural coats and dresses come from hard-to-find Greek and Israeli lines. Elevated basics share space with bold asymmetrical statement-making pieces.
Glynias traces her roots — St. Louis roots and fashion roots — to her great-grandparents, Stephanos and Evangelia Constantinides. The pair emigrated from Greece in 1919 and set up a dry-cleaning business in St. Louis. Glynias' grandmother Olympia worked there as a seamstress until it closed in 2006.
As a teenager attending Clayton High School, Glynias worked at the Gap, and the company subsequently allowed her to transfer to New York. There, she amassed experience in retail, importing and private-label production. After traveling the world and immersing herself in the business of fashion, though, the pull of home was strong.
"It was very important to me to be in St. Louis," says Glynias.
She returned to St. Louis in 2014, and struck up a relationship with Nina Ganci, the creative force behind Skif International, the knitwear boutique and workspace on Marconi Avenue in the Hill neighborhood. In June 2016, LAUNCH Clothing & Accessories was born.
The shop is within the Skif showroom, with the register and about half the merchandise in a nook off a side entrance; the rest of the clothing is displayed close by in the larger showroom. Skif's whimsical pieces and LAUNCH's sleek looks hang near each other, which makes for intriguing interplay.
Glynias took the business online in 2017, but the ease and convenience of online shopping can't really compete with the synergy and personal touch that LAUNCH offers. Visiting her shop on a recent sunny Saturday morning proves to be a full-on sensory experience. Skif isn't just a store, but the actual design-and-manufacturing site for Ganci's knitwear — Glynias calls it "City Museum for clothes" — and you can see manufacturing in process. The site also boasts the unmistakable scent of freshly made soap, which wafts from Herbaria next door. Artists and artisans come and go, chatting about the previous night's artist talk at the Saint Louis Art Museum. Breakfast goodies from La Patisserie Chouquette are shared, and a big brindle dog begs more or less politely.
Glynias encourages a visitor to move from admiring to trying on a full-length gray coat done half in a boucle-effect fabric and half in a smooth one, from Greek line Ozai N Ku. On the hanger it's lovely — on the body, it's breathtaking.
"In the generation of the internet, how could you be so crazy to open up a brick-and-mortar?" Glynias jokes. The sensory thrill of experiencing the coat's cut and luxurious texture in real life more than answers her question.
Online sales only account for around 20 percent of her business. When Glynias opened, she fully intended to compete for the in-person dollar, not the online one.
"I never want to be someone who's shipping 500 boxes out every day," she says.
Maypop Coffee and Garden Shop
In some ways, Maypop Coffee and Garden Shop (803 Marshall Avenue, Webster Groves; 314-764-2140) has an easier sell than other retailers trying to make it in a digital world. Who wants to buy living and breathing plants online?
But the women behind this new shop aren't taking their advantages for granted. They're doing everything they can to give customers the feeling of having stepped almost immediately into a calm and tranquil natural oasis. So much so, in fact, that your visit may leave you likely to forget the names Amazon and PayPal. You may even forget the existence of the Internet altogether.
Opened earlier this year, Maypop is tucked into an easy-to-miss blip of a commercial district with general-store vibes in a residential neighborhood in northeast Webster Groves. An artful blend of caffeine, pastries, horticulture and occasional alcohol, Maypop is a café cocooned by a nursery, a greenhouse that feels at once enormous and cozy, and a thoughtfully restored 1897 classic brick home with bourbon-hued hardwoods, a fireplace and deep windowsills — all of it arranged (in a way that feels unarranged) on a large corner lot. The name stems from passiflora incarnata, a hardy perennial vine that's considered a common wildflower in the southern U.S.
The love child of entrepreneur-owner Tammy Behm and her two-woman brain trust, Laura Caldie and Laura Tetley, Maypop holds as a primary goal giving visitors an opportunity to connect with nature.
Those connections begin with plants. "As humans, we naturally bond with other things that have life in them, that grow," Behm says. Behm subscribes to the theory that being surrounded by growing things constitutes a homecoming of sorts, a return to an earlier period on the evolutionary calendar. "We evolved in natural settings, but now most of us live in cities," she says. "So we wanted to create a space where people connect to nature."
Mimicking nature, the plants at Maypop are not arranged in neat rows with squared corners.
They're clustered based on function, with a free-form look and feel. Even the rectangular greenhouse has a circular, flowing vibe. With entrances on each of its four sides and large openings in the roof, it's passively heated and cooled, eliminating machine noise and freeing the ear to listen instead to birds, frogs and the crunching of gravel underfoot — Behm selected it because it drains well, but now she reveres its sensory-engaging sound.
But plant-inspired engagement is only the beginning. Inside the shop are drinks from St. Louis favorites Blueprint Coffee and Big Heart Tea Co. and pastries from Whisk. Beyond the daily offerings, Behm & Co. are doing their best to give you plenty of reasons to stop by (and maybe buy something while you're there). Happy hour begins every Wednesday at 4 p.m., and starting Thanksgiving weekend, the holiday season kicks off with trees for sale (proceeds to the local Boy Scouts troop), classes and workshops. On the evening of December 7, Maypop will welcome former Nixta chef Tello Carreón for a tasting event. Tickets, available through Maypop's website, are $50.
Behm is beyond pleased with customer turnout thus far. Even though construction delays prevented Maypop from opening at the start of the gardening industry's most lucrative season — spring — she says the shop is thriving, financially and otherwise. "It's amazing how much support we've received from customers across St. Louis who are committed to local, independent businesses," she says. "We've really connected with a lot of people."
Many options for expanding food and drink offerings are under consideration, but for now Behm remains focused on providing customers with a nourishing experience. "A visit to Maypop can be as simple or have as much depth as you want," she says. "My hope is that we've created an environment you'll want to return to."