David Wolk moved to St. Louis immediately after graduating high school in 2005, and spent an entire year designing websites in order to save up enough money to open Cranky Yellow - a curio shop, underground music venue and art gallery of a sort on Cherokee Street. Since the store opened in 2007, it's become a destination for low-brow art and up-and-coming music, as well as a living, breathing Etsy for local artisans. It's been honored by the RFT, and has even earned a tweet or two from Mayor Slay.
But recently, Wolk has been so fed up with the city of St. Louis that he began airing his grievances in today's town hall: Facebook and Twitter. Earlier this week, he blogged the entire saga under the heading "Small Time Woes, or why St. Louis independents must survive." He's openly contemplated closing his doors rather than dealing with the city's determinedly unhelpful bureaucracy.
The reason? The city is coming after him for multiple violations. First, it's claiming he did not file the necessary paperwork for its earnings tax. (Ironic, since as Wolk says, Cranky Yellow has not turned a profit in any tax year.) Then, the city's Trash Task Force issued a court summons for April 5, stating that Wolk failed to provide a commercial container for the trash his store produces - a law he didn't know he was breaking.
The state of Missouri isn't making things any easier: He's also being pursued for back taxes. During that process, his I.D. number was flagged, which instantly negated his state business license and city occupancy permit.
It's easy to see why this D.I.Y. businessman is ready to close up shop.
"I'm trying to get legal," Wolk says. "I'm trying to operate a functioning business and pay tax and help the community and do everything that I can, and it's very difficult for me to do that when I keep getting sent to court, you know?"
Wolk grew up in Ste. Genevieve, and dreamed of moving to the city to open his own business. He didn't like the idea of college, but he was determined to find success on his own terms.
The city made it difficult for him from the outset. He fought to get an occupancy permit since he couldn't afford to pay rent twice. Wolk said the Small Business Assistance Center at City Hall created more problems than they solved, and he had to get his landlord to go to bat for him.
But Cranky Yellow quickly developed a following among the city's small but energetic creative class. And despite Wolk's legal issues, Cranky Yellow is putting on more shows than ever, thanks to booking by Spelling Bee's Joseph Hess. It recently had a successful three day music-and-art festival with local and national touring bands. Last year, their Drawgasmic drawing competition drew a couple of Australians, who came to the U.S. for one reason: to visit Cranky Yellow.
Supporting the artistic community is a labor of love for Wolk; he lives above the shop, staffs the place with a few selfless friends and volunteers, and he denies himself an income in favor of keeping the lights on and the door open.
"I've been footing the bill of the shop and working as hard as possible to expand, grow and keep the shop alive. I never leave this building, it's quite literally my life."
Wolk said he didn't know what he was getting into trying to open a business; there's no infrastructure in place to support independent entrepreneurs who lack a team of lawyers and accountants. No one ever told him he needed a commercial trash container until he was slapped with a summons to court. And no one ever explained that the earnings tax paperwork must be filed with the city, even if there are no earnings to speak of.
"I really went into the situation having no prior knowledge of the way that things worked, the way business worked," Wolk admits. "I was teaching myself as I went along."
That's led to some major missteps, as Wolk acknowledges. The state opened a private investigation into him in 2009, and he was slapped with a lien for neglecting to pay his taxes. He's making payments now, but further insult came about a month ago, when the city of St. Louis hit him with its charge for failing to file paperwork for its one percent earnings tax. And then, of course, came the summons to appear in court over the trash issue.
Wolk has tried numerous times to contact various city departments, but he's received only voice mailboxes and unhelpful answers from receptionists. The Collector of Revenue's receptionist told him to just file "zero" on his taxes, and his court troubles would evaporate. (It remains to be seen if this advice was sound.) When he called the Police Department looking for Sgt. Albert Napier, the off-duty police officer who signed the trash summons, the person he spoke to didn't know the name and wasn't familiar with the Environmental Investigations Unit -- the organization listed on Napier's card -- but directed him instead to the voicemail of the Trash Task Force. His messages were never returned. (The Trash Task Force is a group of off-duty police officers who look into environmental crimes. The Neighborhood Stabilization Office, purported to "increase citizen participation in your community," oversees the task force, and the officers are paid with grant funds through City Hall.) Wolk also called his alderman Craig Schmid, but his voicemail was full.
When reached by A to Z, Schmid was less than sympathetic.
"I have no idea if he's properly disposing of his trash or not," Schmid says. "If he's not, he's not going to get much support from me. Would he get it from you?"
For the record, Wolk says that he didn't know he was doing anything wrong. Not only was he never informed about the need for a commercial container, but he says he tries to reuse most of the trash the store produces to create new art.
"I'm not saying I'm out there on the street all the time picking up trash, but I have picked up trash behind my business before that was not my responsibility, and I disposed of it properly," Wolk says. "I'm not even saying I'm not guilty of the violation. Sure, maybe I am guilty, but all of this comes down to how the city handles and treats small businesses."
He's confused by the fact that Mayor Slay will tweet positively about his business, yet no one from the city seems willing to walk him through what he needs to do get Cranky Yellow on the right side of the bureaucracy.
Slay's press secretary, Kara Bowlin, avouches that the Mayor has tweeted about Cranky Yellow in the past. She was unable to get the Mayor to comment for this story before press time.
"I will tell you that the Mayor knows the importance of supporting independent biz in St. Louis," Bowlin says. "Cranky Yellow is a quirky place in a unique street. And, sometimes, navigating all the different arms of City Government can be confusing.
"I've reached out to the owner via Twitter, but haven't heard from them yet," she adds. "But, they are free to reach out to me and I can see where I can assist."
In light of the recent census numbers, Wolk believes that, now more than ever, the City of St. Louis should be doing everything in its power to keep businesses like his - not push them away.
"Do they want people to move to the city and open businesses? In my dream world, if you drive around south city, on almost every single corner spot there's a storefront. And in my dream world, those storefronts would be filled with independent businesses, whether they be markets or whatever."
Wolk has arranged to speak with the Cherokee Street Business Association about the trash issue. He visited City Hall yesterday to try to get some answers. ( A to Z is following up with Wolk to see how that went, and will update as needed.)
"Something has got to change, because if it's not Cranky Yellow, it's going to be Subterranean or anyone else who is having problems," Wolk said. "I'm honestly ready to close or move my business out of the city. I'm too young, too driven, and too talented to be fined for my effort to create and grow in this city.
"It's now or never--I won't wait."
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