The following is the first part in an ongoing series highlighting those hidden caches of awesomeness, the independent bookstores that pepper this great land. Subterranean Books is one of the many rad bookstores inhabiting the St. Louis area, and not only are they surviving, but they’re thriving. This short interview with owner, Kelly von Plonski, was conducted via email.
What’s Subterranean’s origin story?
I was working at another bookstore and knew that I wanted to open my own store using my ideas and vision. I had a business partner and together we borrowed money from relatives and opened Subterranean as a mixed-stock new and used bookstore, in October 2000. Along the way I’ve transitioned the store from the mixed-stock to all new books, and shed my partner. This year is our 10th anniversary and we’re still going strong.
What’s the curatorial process when choosing books to stock?
Short version: Gut. Long version: Everyone on staff has input and the stock is reflective of our personalities. If anyone knows something or feels something about a book or a subject, we’ll stock it. We also eavesdrop on our customers, pay attention to what’s being special ordered, read blogs, magazines, newspapers…everything to stay up on what would be interesting to carry. We also carefully track what is already selling so that we are carrying what our customers want. But especially, since we’re a small store we know our customers–we have conversations with them and we always take what they have to say to heart. Many many books are on the shelves now because a customer told us about them.
What’s the arts/literature scene in St. Louis like and what role does Subterranean play within it?
The arts/literature scene is thriving. There are so many small galleries operating right now. So many drama troupes and poetry groups. We’ve had an art gallery in the store pretty much since we opened and we’ve had exhibits by almost 100 different artists up. We help out with Noir at the Bar, a semi-regular literary event that focuses on crime fiction and takes place…in a bar. We’ve hosted traveling authors from Melville House, Soft Skull, Akashic Books, Found vs PostSecret and other really cool edgy publishers.
What helps a book sell? What’s been the most successful book at Subterranean?
A passionate bookseller. People come to us because they trust us so when someone wants a recommendation they almost always take us up on the suggestion. When one of us just loves loves a book, that excitement comes through and customers respond. We have recommendation labels (shelf talkers) on a number of books and sales of those titles directly correlate. Sales will all of a sudden spike for a title and I’ll check, and sure enough, someone has written a shelf talker for it. By a landslide our bestselling title is ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’, second up is ‘Omnivore’s Dilemma’.
How does a brick-and-mortar store not only survive, but maintain relevance in the age of Amazon?
Because you can touch them, smell them, flip through the pages and hear that lovely page-flipping sound. Turn the cover over to see the back. You can have a real live conversation, standing at the counter. You can run into someone you haven’t seen in a while or that lives next door. People really appreciate that we curate, that they don’t have to dig through the dreck to get to something good. They like it that they can ride their bicylcle over, take a coffee break next door, and ride home with a book from the Staff Picks shelf.
Please describe the cat that lives in your store. If you don’t have a bookstore cat, please explain why.
My mom and grandmother were horribly allergic to cats so even though I don’t have allergies, I am very sensitive to those that do and we’ve never had a store cat for that reason.