Spy Games and Celebrity Sightings at St. Louis-Area Bookstores

Watch out, she may be packing an iPhone. - image via
Watch out, she may be packing an iPhone.

As everybody knows, the Christmas-shopping season is the most hectic time to be in retail -- as both a seller and as a consumer -- and this year, there's an extra frisson of excitement in St. Louis bookstores, thanks to some corporate espionage and celebrity sightings.

The corporate espionage, it should be made clear, was not on the part of any of the local booksellers. The Grinch who attempted to steal their Christmas was their longtime enemy, Amazon.

Last Saturday the online retailer offered its users a $5 discount if they downloaded a scanning app to their smartphones, went into their local independent bookstores and did price checks on random books. Local booksellers, when they got wind of the promotion, were furious.

"Amazon's culture of corporate sleaze knows no bounds," Jarek Steele, co-owner of Left Bank Books, wrote on his blog, "and it will not rest until it is the only retailer left standing."

(Booksellers weren't the only ones pissed at Amazon. Authors were disgusted as well.)

But on the big day, Steele says, he didn't catch anybody scanning. Nor did Nikki Furrer at Pudd'nhead Books, who adds that she did see people with their phones out, but only because they were checking their Amazon Wish Lists.

It could be that the people who shop at independent bookstores are unusually aware of the threat Amazon poses to local businesses and unusually conscientious about not supporting the online behemoth. It could also be that would-be spies read the fine print on Amazon's offer and noticed that the discount was actually 5 percent of their purchase up to $5. Nonetheless, the indie booksellers were pleased with the outcome.

"Honestly," Furrer writes in an e-mail, "I'm thanking [Amazon CEO] Jeff Bezos. That little scam drew so much negative attention to Amazon and so much positive attention to the Shop Local movement, we had a record-setting day on Saturday. I'm kind of hoping they try something else this week."

If they do, they'll be competing against the St. Louis Independent Booksellers Alliance's latest promotion: City-Wide Celebrity Bookselling, which mostly takes place this Saturday, December 17. Twenty authors, including Bill McClellan, Curtis Sittenfeld, Matt Kindt, Scott Phillips, Ridley Pearson and Heather Brewer, have volunteered to hand-sell books at six local bookstores. (Betcha didn't think we had that many authors here.) Some of them will donate a percentage of the books they sell to charity.

"It's fun," says Steele, "and a good way to spend your dollar and spread it around the community."

Left Bank has, overall, been enjoying a good holiday season, says Steele. "Some of it can be attributed to Borders closing," he adds, "but we've been approaching people, making our ties to the community closer. And the more connected we get to the community, we get more support." (Book sales have been up at stores all across the country, the New York Times reports.)

Still, the future of Left Bank's downtown store remains uncertain. When it opened in the fall of 2008, developer Craig Heller agreed to pay for the rent and utilities while allowing Left Bank to manage the business. Business at the store has been steady. It hasn't bottomed out, but it hasn't grown, either.

"Our contract runs out at the end of the year," says Steele. "Technically, it ran out in October, but Christmas is not the time to make huge business decisions."

More news to follow, then, in the new year.

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