Subterranean Books: Delmar’s readerly refuge
It is a rainy and cold February day, but Subterranean Books, the Delmar Loop’s local bookstore, provides sanctuary from the dreariness of winter. The doorway is set back from the sidewalk, cradled between two curving windows that guide you inward. As you enter, you are greeted by a cozy tranquility. Inside, customers quietly mill about, browsing the shelves and slowly turning pages. Wooden shelves line the walls, providing home to hundreds of books for all types of readers. Like its name suggests, Subterranean Books is certainly a refuge, a world separate from that which lies outside its front door.
Owner and founder Kelly von Plonski first opened Subterranean Books in October 2000 with this very intention. She founded it to follow her vision of what a bookstore should be: “someplace friendly and welcoming, someplace that people really felt at home.”
From its founding to today, over a decade later, von Plonski’s original vision remains. The employees work tirelessly to establish strong relationships with their customers and make sure they leave the store happy. According to assistant buyer Alex Weir, “It’s what we live or die by, to match the customer with a book we think he or she will enjoy.” The goal for Subterranean is not to sell as many books as possible but to match the right book to the right customer.
Subterranean therefore stocks a wide variety of genres, which is exceptional for an indie bookstore. Most passersby on the Loop might assume it doesn’t carry a diverse selection due to its size and atmosphere, a misconception that its employees are constantly working to combat. Though its specialty is literary fiction, it carries everything from Wash. U. course books to do-it-yourself manuals to “Twilight.”
“I had never even considered looking there for my course books…I wish I had thought about it earlier,” senior Dan Cohn said of his last Subterranean purchase, a book for one of his classes. “It was nice to take away some business from the campus bookstore…[because] pretty fundamentally I don’t like big chain business.”
It follows that its customer base is as diverse as its selection. The store brings in tourists exploring the Loop, students, regular shoppers on their weekly trip to the bookstore and people merely passing by. The variety of clientele is one of the aspects of the store that employee Rob Levy finds most enjoyable. “The best part of this job is that you get to learn from other people,” he says.
Despite the wide appeal of Subterranean’s stock and the attentiveness of its staff, it still has difficulty competing with chain and online bookstores. “People would be shocked at the small amount of money we make things go on,” says von Plonski. “If people shifted 10 percent of what they spend online other places, that would make a huge difference.”
The benefits of supporting local businesses like Subterranean are not for the store only but are also reaped by the neighborhood. Money spent in the community largely stays in the community and also represents a commitment to preserving a unique shop and personal customer-business relationships. Levy describes the struggle of the local business as “a cause we’ve taken up, not just a job…every day is bucking the system of commercialism.”
“I really like Subterranean and all other small independent bookstores because by buying my books there I am actually supporting someone’s passions for books and reading and learning,” Cohn said. “I like putting my money through the local economy rather than the global commodity chains.”
Due to its heavy competition, Subterranean has evolved with the times. It has a Facebook page as well as a blog to keep the community up to date about events, such as Noir at the Bar, a reading co-hosted by Meshuggah Cafe, and to post interviews with its most loyal customers. It also has a partnership with Kobo eReaders as well as an online store that has “everything but the kitchen sink,” according to Weir.
Nevertheless, Subterranean’s charm remains off the Internet and in the store itself. As von Plonski says, “the human component is crucial.”