UPDATE: Help Save Subterranean Books From the Evil Recession

Categories: Bidness, Books

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Don't freeze Subterranean Books out of business.
Subterranean Books, the awesome independent bookstore that has graced the Delmar Loop for the past eleven years (and winning Riverfront Times' Best of St. Louis honors several times along the way) may be forced to close up shop on September 1.

Subterranean requested a rent reduction from its landlord and was turned down. Owner Kelly von Plonski has also considered relocating the store, but found that rents in other parts of the city, such as South Grand, weren't low enough to justify the cost of moving.

In any case, von Plonski writes on the store's Facebook page, there's no point in paying less rent if the customers still won't come. To that end, she's set up a survey to see what, exactly, her customers are looking for.

The store shut down its used book section in 2008 and contracted from two storefronts on Delmar Boulevard to one.

Von Plonski has lost her voice due to a cold, but hopes to be able to tell Daily RFT more tomorrow.

February 4: Update with comments from von Plonski after the jump...

"We never had much cushion," says von Plonski. "We've never been high-grossing and our payroll is tiny, but we've always had just enough. Last year from January through March, our sales were up, but then they went down again April through November. In December they were back up again and I was thinking, 'Maybe we've turned a corner.' And then in January, we were down 25 percent."

Von Plonski has set an arbitrary deadline of the end of June for sales to turn around. If they don't, she's leaving the rest of the summer to liquidate her stock and give the landlord time to rent the space to someone else.

(Unlike many independent bookstores across the country, including Left Bank Books' downtown location, Subterranean's rent isn't subsidized. Von Plonski pays about $21 per square foot. She had asked her landlord for a 30 percent reduction, but the landlord declined.)

"We want to earn people's business back," she says, "and earn new business. We're not looking for anyone to give us a handout. That's not how business works. We want people to choose to spend their money with us because we're good."

Von Plonski isn't sure what happened to drive Subterranean's sales down. Though she and her staff won't tabulate the survey data till the end of next week, they've been scanning the early responses and have found most of them overwhelmingly positive. A lot of people, though, didn't seem to realize that Subterranean has a website they can use to order e-books and regular books that aren't in stock ("It's not one click like Amazon, it's maybe five clicks," von Plonski admits, "but it's there"), and that the store offers a weekly storytime. Which tells von Plonski she needs to promote these things more aggressively.

Readings, she concedes, would give her extra business, like the 600 people who turned out for last September's visit from Jonathan Franzen. (That reading was sponsored by Left Bank Books.) But readings are difficult to get: not only would Subterranean be competing locally with Left Bank and Pudd'nhead Books, it would also be fighting with stores nationwide who want authors to come to their towns.

Rearranging the store to make the aisles wider, which many shoppers have suggested, is not an option. "The shelves are screwed and glued into the floor," von Plonski explains. "It was like that when we took over the space."

Mostly, though, she blames Amazon, which lures customers with home delivery (which Subterranean also offers), deep discounts (from bullying small publishers) and no sales tax (a discrepancy that, in Subterranean's case, cannot be helped).

"If Amazon would subsidize our rent," she jokes, "they could use us as a showplace. People come in and look at our books and then order them from Amazon. They do this all the time. And it doesn't feed us. People get complacent and forget us. And we can't handle people forgetting us."

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11 comments
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Bobart
Bobart

I will be willing to put my pet bunny in her store window every weekend in April to promote our Easter message- "Make Mine Chocolate". If she wants both windows filled with bunnies to really attract attention, we can do that too. Our bunnies are friendly and can be petted, but not picked up. I can supervise and will bring all the necessary items to keep bunnies happy while they are there and do a clean-up if needed. I just need a small 8.5x11 sheet to hang up and say Make Mine Chocolate and a place to put Missouri House Rabbit Society business cards.

Stephanie E.
Stephanie E.

Regarding the suggestions about an independent bookstore on Cherokee Street -- our neighborhood does have one, friends. The year-old Archive, near the corner of Cherokee and Compton (mere feet from STL-Style's StyleHouse, Peridot, and Tower Tacos), has been doing some really fantastic stuff in the way of books, community, art, music, and soon, food.

Matt
Matt

This shop would be perfect for Morgan Ford between Arsenal and Utah, or on Manchester in the Grove, but only if it had some sort of cafe/coffee shop element as well for that particular location.

AJ
AJ

Would totally love to see them move to South Grand-I know of quite a few places with super cheap rent-we would love to have you!!!

Danjdeguire
Danjdeguire

@ana

I agree about Cherokee Street. As a former resident of Benton Park West, the Neighborhood north of Cherokee Street, I would say that would be a very good place for a bookstore. The rent isn't high there. And it's a very youth driven market exploding with art and open-mindiness.

Kris Kleindienst
Kris Kleindienst

I am very concerned about Subterranean's situation for many reasons, including the fact that Left Bank Books is in a very similar position. It distresses me that RFT is reporting that our rent is subsidized as if we somehow are making it and getting something for free. Nothing could be further from the truth, sadly. Independent book stores are not the enemies of one another. We stand together against the real enemy: Amazon.com, the online goliath whose business plan is built upon tax evasion. --

Aimee Levitt
Aimee Levitt

Kris, I didn't mean to imply that Left Bank is getting away with something. All I meant to point out is that the economic climate is so terrible that even a store like Left Bank, which is an institution in this city, still needs extra help to stay afloat, and that Subterranean is not lucky enough to have a sympathetic landlord.

ana
ana

I understand that South Grand can be expansive especially for a relocation, however has she considered Cherokee street. There are a number of larger vacant store fronts where the rent is not $21 per square foot. Subterranean would be a welcome addition to the neighborhood. Just a thought.

billhannegan
billhannegan

Books make good presents. My wife and I might do next year's Christmas shopping now at Subterranean Books.

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