What a difference nine months can make. St. Louis, Mo.’s booksellers are feeling a confidence and optimism these days that didn’t exist in February, when four independent booksellers—Left Bank Books, Subterranean Books, Pudd’nhead Books, and Main Street Books—formed the St. Louis Independent Bookstore Alliance (SLIBA) in an effort to keep Subterranean from going out of business. The closing of nine Borders stores in the St. Louis suburbs has a lot to do with the newfound confidence; those closings has resulted in a 10%–15% spike in sales this summer and fall at a number of indies contacted by PW. But even bookstores within the city limits, which didn’t have a direct Borders competitor, have more business-to-business and school orders, as well as stronger consumer sales. Kris Kleindienst, the co-owner of Left Bank Books, reports that revenue and foot traffic are “on an upward trend” at her three-year-old downtown location, prompting her to renew the lease there indefinitely. “I call them Borders orphans,” Kleindienst says. “They come in during the lunch hour and say, ‘Oh, a bookstore. I don’t have one anymore.’”
At the same time that Borders was grappling with bankruptcy, SLIBA set out to raise the public’s awareness of independent bookstore alternatives with a mix of cooperative advertising and programming that’s garnered a lot of attention: Riverfront Times, an alternative weekly, even named SLIBA the “Best Thing to Happen to St. Louis Readers This Year,” praising the group for demonstrating that while “reading and selling books can sometimes feel like lonely enterprises, they don’t have to be.”
The group organized three high-profile events this past spring that all sold out: a “tech petting zoo,” during which booksellers explained to 20 attendees how e-books work and how to download Google e-books from bookstore Web sites; a “bookstore cruise” bus tour of the four SLIBA charter member stores that included a restaurant meal for the 50 bookstore tourists; and a literary speed-dating gathering that attracted 15 men and 15 women, who each brought a book to kick off five-minute conversations. The second literary speed-dating evening took place on October 16, and the second bookstore cruise is set for October 22, with stops at four stores, some of which will host author events.
SLIBA’s coordinator, Jarek Steele, the co-owner of Left Bank Books, maintains its Web site (www.stlindiebook.com/), which features book recommendations, bookseller blogs, and a comprehensive literary calendar of events. Just for SLIBA bookstore members, the organization sponsors educational sessions, such as a recent meeting with Penguin’s business sales rep to strategize on how to pump up business-to-business sales.
SLIBA’s membership is now at 13 bookstores, including a bookstore on the other side of the Mississippi River, BSR Used Books, in Granite City, Ill. Its newest member, All on the Same Page Books, just opened in Creve Coeur, Mo., in a 900-sq.-ft. retail space with an initial inventory of 8,000 new and used titles.
Creve Coeur co-owners Robin Tidwell and her husband, Dennis—who has worked in retail for various major discount stores—decided in July to open their bookstore when a nearby Borders closed. Not only did the couple do extensive market research before opening their doors, other SLIBA members offered them advice. So far, so good, the Tidwells say. The opening day celebration on October 1, which featured local celebrities Tom Mee (Cutting the Game: Inside Television Baseball from the Director’s Chair) and former St. Louis Cardinals baseball player Al Hrabosky, drew about 70 people, who bought 117 books.
While most SLIBA stores report that sales are steadily rising, Pudd’nhead Books’ sales have exploded, up 25% over last year. Nikki Furrer, the store’s owner, says sales had been improving steadily over the year and then took off in September, when the store moved from a 1,400-sq.-ft. space to an 1,800-sq.-ft. space on a busier street in the same neighborhood. Because the new space has fewer windows, the move also doubled the store’s shelving capacity. Plus, Furrer disclosed, the manager and employees at a nearby Borders that closed this fall “liked us” and during the store’s going-out-of-business sale gave out Pudd’nhead store coupons offering a 20% discount to card-carrying Borders customers. “We got a bunch of them,” Furrer says.
While sales at Left Bank’s flagship store in the city’s West End were “awful” in August, the following month was “the best September in five years,” Klein-dienst says. Of course, she adds, Bouchercon, the annual gathering of mystery authors and readers from all over the world, took place in St. Louis September 15–18, drawing in 1,600 booklovers.
Even Subterranean Books, the store whose troubles spawned SLIBA’s formation over the winter, reports better news these days. After a 25% drop in January, sales at Subterranean have inched back up almost each month since, with sales up 15% in September. October sales, which are “usually horrible,” says owner Kelly von Plonski, have been up so far, leading her to think that “the holiday season could be gigantic.”