Cranky Yellow, Cherokee Street Oddity Emporium, Tries to Fight City Hall
David Wolk moved to St. Louis immediately after graduating high school in 2005, and spent an entire year designing websites in order to save up enough money to open Cranky Yellow - a curio shop, underground music venue and art gallery of a sort on Cherokee Street. Since the store opened in 2007, it's become a destination for low-brow art and up-and-coming music, as well as a living, breathing Etsy for local artisans. It's been honored by the RFT, and has even earned a tweet or two from Mayor Slay.
But recently, Wolk has been so fed up with the city of St. Louis that he began airing his grievances in today's town hall: Facebook and Twitter. Earlier this week, he blogged the entire saga under the heading "Small Time Woes, or why St. Louis independents must survive." He's openly contemplated closing his doors rather than dealing with the city's determinedly unhelpful bureaucracy.
The reason? The city is coming after him for multiple violations. First, it's claiming he did not file the necessary paperwork for its earnings tax. (Ironic, since as Wolk says, Cranky Yellow has not turned a profit in any tax year.) Then, the city's Trash Task Force issued a court summons for April 5, stating that Wolk failed to provide a commercial container for the trash his store produces - a law he didn't know he was breaking.
The state of Missouri isn't making things any easier: He's also being pursued for back taxes. During that process, his I.D. number was flagged, which instantly negated his state business license and city occupancy permit.
It's easy to see why this D.I.Y. businessman is ready to close up shop.
"I'm trying to get legal," Wolk says. "I'm trying to operate a functioning business and pay tax and help the community and do everything that I can, and it's very difficult for me to do that when I keep getting sent to court, you know?"
Wolk grew up in Ste. Genevieve, and dreamed of moving to the city to open his own business. He didn't like the idea of college, but he was determined to find success on his own terms.
The city made it difficult for him from the outset. He fought to get an occupancy permit since he couldn't afford to pay rent twice. Wolk said the Small Business Assistance Center at City Hall created more problems than they solved, and he had to get his landlord to go to bat for him.
But Cranky Yellow quickly developed a following among the city's small but energetic creative class. And despite Wolk's legal issues, Cranky Yellow is putting on more shows than ever, thanks to booking by Spelling Bee's Joseph Hess. It recently had a successful three day music-and-art festival with local and national touring bands. Last year, their Drawgasmic drawing competition drew a couple of Australians, who came to the U.S. for one reason: to visit Cranky Yellow.
Supporting the artistic community is a labor of love for Wolk; he lives above the shop, staffs the place with a few selfless friends and volunteers, and he denies himself an income in favor of keeping the lights on and the door open.
"I've been footing the bill of the shop and working as hard as possible to expand, grow and keep the shop alive. I never leave this building, it's quite literally my life."
Wolk said he didn't know what he was getting into trying to open a business; there's no infrastructure in place to support independent entrepreneurs who lack a team of lawyers and accountants. No one ever told him he needed a commercial trash container until he was slapped with a summons to court. And no one ever explained that the earnings tax paperwork must be filed with the city, even if there are no earnings to speak of.