At 4,000 square feet, Left Bank Books in St. Louis is the largest independent bookstore in Missouri. “In terms of the size of the state, what does that say?” asked owner Barry Liebman. Independent booksellers have taken a big hit since the incursion of chains and big-box stores that began in the mid-’90s, said Holtzbrinck rep Gary Cate.

There are now 15 Barnes & Nobles in Missouri, and 19 Borders/Borders Express/Waldenbooks. The state also has more than 100 Wal-Marts. Sam’s Club has seven locations in the St. Louis metropolitan area and seven in the Kansas City metro area. Still, Penguin rep Jon Mooney cited independent standouts Left Bank and Kansas City’s Rainy Day Books as evidence that “the strong have survived.”

St. Louis and Kansas City are the two major bookselling markets, though there is some activity in Springfield and in college town Columbia. St. Louis is home to some 2.5 million people; in contrast, the population of Missouri’s third-largest city, Springfield, is about 165,000, and much of the state is rural. Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone, Tomato Red), who lives in the Missouri Ozarks, admitted that his home “is 104 miles to the nearest new bookstore of any size.” Bordering eight states, Missouri has long been a mix of Midwestern and southern influences, memorably captured in prose by native son Mark Twain, but also evident today in the state’s notable Christian bookselling market.

Springfield, home to a well-regarded independent called Well Fed Head, is also home to Christian Publishers Outlet, which, according to Noble Marketing rep Ryan Garrett, is one of the biggest accounts in the nation for many Christian publishers.

In St. Louis, big-box stores are taking a big slice of book sales. Liebman, who’s been at Left Bank for 33 years, said that the closing of Library Ltd.—at the time the largest independent bookstore in the country in terms of square footage—made his store “the” independent in town. It “kept us in business,” Liebman said.

Another source of competition—the Web—has affected business for Helen Simpson, owner of Big Sleep Books in St. Louis, which has specialized in mystery and espionage titles for 19 years. Simpson used to do well with first editions, now easily available on sites like eBay. Big Sleep also used to host signings almost every week, but now it’s closer to two or three times a quarter. Still, there are a number of mystery writers in the St. Louis area, including John Lutz and Ridley Pearson, Simpson can count as friends of the store. To foster business, Simpson sends out a quarterly newsletter to about 1,500 subscribers. There is also a semiannual hardback sale and, for the first time, this summer she’ll have a 25%-off sale on paperbacks.

Kansas City has seen longtime fixtures Bennett Schneider (which once hosted Hemingway) and Whistler’s Books fall casualty to the chains; Bennett Schneider was “probably the first to go,” said Cate, when a 20,000-sq.ft. B&N opened nearby. Other than “outstanding” children’s store Reading Reptile, there’s no other general independent on the Missouri side; Rainy Day is a couple of blocks across the Kansas border.

Kansas City is described by Reading Reptile owner Pete Cowdin as a “very typically Midwestern town, convenience-oriented and car-oriented,” with “suburban tastes.” Cowdin noted that there’s been a steady decline in the presence of independents there over the last 10 years. With three employees and 20,000 books, he said the reason his store is still around is that he decided early on not to compete with chains and online retailers. Reading Reptile has survived by “scrapping, knowing a lot about children’s books” and being able to “steer people from the quotidian.” Cowdin regularly loses stock because the store encourages children to actually handle the books in-store.

Bookselling Health Index
Household Income: $40,725

Population: 5,755

Independent Bookstores: 62

Chain Bookstores: 38

Total Bookstores: 100

Big-box Stores: 164

Total Stores: 264

Stores per Capita: 1 per 21,799

Per Capita Rank: 19