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Tuesday, 25 March 2014 11:30

The intangible buzz of the STL Writers' Room + Video

Austin Skinner at the STL Writers' Room Austin Skinner at the STL Writers' Room Abby Gillardi
Written by Kyle Kapper

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"St. Louis has an outsized writers' community, who more and more avoid boisterous coffee shops, which in turn don't want writers coming in just to sit and write anymore," says Austin Skinner, founder and owner of the STL Writers' Room. "It's become a purchase basis with them now. Seating is available with a receipt."

Located at 2101 N. Locust Street in downtown St. Louis, the Writers' Room is open 24/7. Housed in a development built by Albert Lambert to be his pharmacy's factory (a controversial decision in 1902, as the intersection that Schlafly Tap Room now shares was back then considered the city's suburbs), the Writers' Room, begun in 2011, has a large and open feel, decorated in an industrial, rustic style and adorned with exposed brick, red leather and high ceilings.

Writers, Skinner says, are still "looking for a space to get out of the house to work" to avoid life's day-to-day distractions. "Every space is common space" at home, says Skinner, and worrying about what chores need to be done is "the enemy of creativity." He describes the Writers' Room as a "destination to go and do something," comparing it to a gym. "You could work out at home, but [being a member] gives you a reason to do it." He says members often tell him that what they are able to accomplish in a few hours at the Writers' Room would take them several days if they'd written it at home instead.

Skinner is so averse to the distractions of today's world that he largely shuns social media, both for the Writers' Room and for himself as well. In fact, until Janet Rhoads came onboard a few months ago as Social Media Manager, the enterprise relied almost entirely on word-of-mouth marketing, which Skinner admits remains largely a mystery to him. He says he's learned that writers, despite their inherent reclusive nature, are in touch with one another. Once he had reached one or two, the word spread among the wordsmiths, and an "intangible buzz" began to build.

So what can writers expect from their memberships at the St. Louis Writers' Room? Skinner says the place offers both a sense of community and a sense of solitude. Catering to individual preferences, workspaces range from tables and desks to armchairs and a couch, all set up along the perimeter with an open communal area between, where writers can mingle over coffee and cocoa. When I ask whether he's actually seen strangers interacting, Skinner nods and recalls how two members told him they'd ended up collaborating on their dissertations after meeting at the Writers' Room and discovering they'd joined it for the same purpose.

Of course, such encounters are kept to a whisper out of respect for those toiling with their manuscripts, a sensitivity which led Skinner and Rhoads -- who doubles as Special Events Coordinator -- to open a separate room to accommodate group events. The communal space is under construction, but Skinner says it will offer a large table, a projection screen and a drinks station, and it will even be available for small concerts in the future.

The concept of the Writers' Room is based on similar operations out of Boston and New York. Skinner originally tested the idea with friends at the Lemp Brewery, where, despite having 27 buildings, one utilities switch ruled them all. "Heat was only to keep the pipes from freezing," Skinner recalls with a grin.

When the initiative gained momentum a year ago, he moved the group to its current locale, where he can offer writers not only modern comforts but the peace of mind of a safer surrounding neighborhood as well. The building itself has even become a hub for artistic expression, with painters, photographers and sculptors dwelling in its other chambers.

"There's a certain largeness to it," says Skinner, gazing out the panoramic twelve-foot windows. "People find it to be very inspiring."

Photos by Abby Gillardi.