October 31, 2011

Word Missouri: In a hostile climate, a group of St. Louis bookstores have banded together to survive

First off, head over to our partners at KBIA to listen to the story through the eyes of booksellers, authors and book lovers.

Earlier this year a group of independent bookstores in St. Louis forgot about looking at each other as competitors in the same market and banded together to support each other. They’re called the St. Louis Independent Bookstore Alliance, and they’re promoting shopping indie with some pretty interesting tricks, including an all-day bookstore tour that treats little shops like Subterranean Books (on the Delmar Loop) and Left Bank Books (in the Central West End) like they were the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. (And there’s a free Mexican buffet!)

This kind of alliance is rare, but not unheard-of; what’s unusual is seeing it pop up somewhere like St. Louis. We all know the book industry has been sagging (see: Borders), but what’s surprising is that there are probably actually more indie bookstores in the US this year than last year, if we can use membership figures from the American Booksellers Association (which only includes indies) as a guide. But the business realities facing new bookstores are very different from what used stores have to deal with.

On one hand, the death of Borders should make numbers look a little better for a shop like Subterranean, which deals almost exclusively in new books and carefully curates its selection. On the other, Subterranean must feel the pinch from Amazon – and it is a steep pinch, not only for booksellers but for Missouri’s economy, according to Subterranean owner Kelly von Plonski. The used booksellers I spoke with don’t typically feel threatened by E-readers – the know they’re offering a niche product that can’t be replicated by anything else – and can actually use Amazon to bring in extra revenue, but must often live with the reality of miniscule profits. More than one used bookseller has told me they might as well be working at a non-profit – but there’s nothing else they’d rather be doing.

The cool thing about events like this, bookstore cruises and literary speed-dating (that’s right), is that they’re basically pushing the previous social boundaries of reading (A: book clubs and B: talking about books at the bar with your friends) to a new level. But at the same time, they’re creating something like a farmer’s market for books – something you can participate in with the feeling you’re helping support something smart and healthy and local, a force for good in the face of big box stores. “My daughter belongs to the slow food movement,” one woman on the book cruise told me. “This is the slow book movement.”

About davisdunavin

Word Missouri is an examination of Missouri's literary past, present and future, jointly published by KBIA and the Missouri Review. The series uses audio, text, video and graphics to look at every aspect of literature in Missouri. Series creator and reporter Davis Dunavin is a journalist and Masters student in the University of Missouri-Columbia Journalism School.

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