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On Wednesday morning, the phone at Pudd’nhead Books was ringing well before 10 a.m., not an unusual occurrence, according to proprietor Nikki Furrer. But the doors stay closed until 10, on the dot, at which point the first customers of the day usually come in within a few minutes; occasionally, they’re even out on the sidewalk, waiting for the lock to turn. This past Wednesday, the early-arriving trend held true, with an upbeat group of Nerinx Hall students hustling through the door at 10:06.
With the nearby Catholic high holding exams this week, small gangs of Nerinx Hall Markers have been seen all week, as they ramble through Old Orchard, populate the coffeeshops and excitedly talk while waiting for crossing lights. As they arrived at Pudd’nhead, the shop went from quiet to energetic, as the small storm of plaid skirts, Ugg boots and chatter spread through the shop. Slowly settling into two pockets of students, another group of a half-dozen reinforcements arrived, along with three more, older-than-teen shoppers; two of them were there to pick up special orders and the register was ringing.
(Henry, the store’s “assistant manager,” wasn’t sure if he wasn’t supposed to be excited or shy; the gray-and-black spaniel/poodle mix zipped out from the behind the counter every so often, each time greeted by enthusiastic petting from the Nerinx kids.)
Business seemed brisk, healthy. But as Furrer told one disappointed customer, there might not be a business, at all, at the end of this month. While still attempting to find a long shot funding partner for the store, Furrer is braced for the doors closing on December 31.
“On one hand, putting out the word before we close is a cry for help,” Furrer say, matter-of-factly. “If anyone wants to buy in, they’re welcome. The problem is a lack of cash. I’ve able to mitigate the losses the past two years, but I need a partner with cash who can fill up the store again. We’re almost out of books. It’s not impossible to make this work, but it is impossible for me, because my funds are limited.”
Pudd’nhead Books opened in October of 2008, located in the far corner of a strip mall just across Big Bend Road. In September, 2011, the store moved to its current, 1,800 square foot location at 8157 Big Bend.
At present, though, a chunk of the store isn’t even open, with the back quarter kept dark for the past couple months. Furrer says that the shop’s inventory is “now about half of what we’ve had in the past. We are pretty empty.” As of yesterday, Furrer was still ordering books, but not in bulk, working with small shipments that’ve been allowing her to keep the bestsellers, NPR picks and a shelf of personal recommendations in stock; but there’s not the depth that she’d like to feature. In recent weeks, when short on a needed title, she’s even popped into Left Bank to grab one.
“It’s crazy, because 40 percent of our sales for the whole year happens in the fourth quarter,” Furrer says. “Some of those people are early Christmas shoppers, coming in during November. But most of it is happening right now. We’re so low on books right now, because we’re trying to clear out the store by the end of the month. I’ve gone to Left Bank, because it’s the only place for me to buy books. Walking in, I could feel the books. They have so many! They have stacks of a title, when we’ve only had one. That made me so sad, I wanted to just lay down in that store.”
Like all independent bookstores, Furrer’s business has been hit the usual assortment of factors affecting the industry. E-books continue their rise in popularity. Major retailers, ala Wal-Mart and Target, stock at least a marginal line of best-sellers. And she even points to the neighboring pottery store, saying, “They sell pottery books and we don’t. Everybody sells books.”
But an indie store has to have that browsability quality, with enough titles to possess what the media savant Chris Anderson calls “the long tail.” In effect, sufficient books have to be present that shoppers can make random connections and purchases along the way, bouncing between sections and finding buys that they didn’t intend to make upon entering the shop. And there’s where Furrer says that the difficulty’s come there: in order to simply make payroll and keep the lights on, she’s not been able to fully stock the store to the degree necessary to compete with other local indies, let alone Amazon.
“Buyers want bookmarks,” she says. “They want to buy cards; I could have a card store and make more money than in books. They want finger puppets. All kind of things affiliated to books. If you want the bills paid, you bring in that type of stuff. And some of it’s kinda fun. I’m doing an order right now, of Tim Burton playing cards. They’re one of our most popular items. We can sell a pack every week. Those are the things that enough of a margin that allow you to get over the hump.”
In trying to find a partner, she’s realistic that “this is not an investment opportunity. The return-on-investment is not that good. Someone’s financial planner would not be into this. But it is a labor of love. So I’d need people who’d be willing to write a check to co-own a bookstore, but those aren’t the same people trolling Craigslist, looking for business opportunities.”
Furrer’s been walking something of a tightrope in recent weeks. She says that her large contingent of Webster Groves shoppers have been aware of what’s happening, since “we’ve been telling anybody that’s asked for a gift card that we don’t want to sell one without them knowing. You don’t want to do that, then close two weeks later. I don’t think there’s anybody in Webster Groves that doesn’t know. Word spreads quickly here.”
With an eye towards the potential for closure, Furrer says that she’s moving into a pre-holiday, sales mode, with “everything in the store going to 20% off on Friday. The stuff already on-sale will be more discounted. And after Christmas, they’ll be even more on sale. I’ll just have to see how much time we have, whether we can keep trying to keep in the stuff that people are asking for before Christmas. After that, we’ll sell everything until we’re all out on the 31st.
“I kept it quiet on purpose,” she says, “just in case there was a buyer. I didn’t want my distributor to know, to see it online, because then they’ll only sell to me with cash upfront. Hence, the rumor mill.”
But now, Furrer wants the word out. If the stories that’ll appear in coming days are ultimately tinged with certain sadness. Because even as she’s planning on selling off shelves, furniture and all her stock, she’s still thinking that an eleventh-hour, Christmas season miracle might be out there.
“Yeah, I think it could be saved,” she says. “But it would have to happen quickly. Real quickly.”