Let me introduce you to our store. Left Bank Books opened in 1969 by a group of graduate students at Washington University who wanted to create a place where one could find all kinds of literature. We are the oldest and largest independently-owned full-line bookstore in St. Louis, and we offer a full-line of new and used books, gifts, cards, magazines, toys and services. We've grown and changed throughout our 45 years, but our mission still remains the same – to spark public conversation by curating an intelligent, relevant, culturally diverse selection of books.
We’re located at Euclid and McPherson in the historic Central West End neighborhood, situated among magnificent turn-of-the-century residences and some of the best restaurants and finest art galleries in the area. We’re steps away from public transportation and enjoy greeting customers from all parts of the city and its surrounding area.
We see ourselves as a cultural institution as well as a retail business. In that spirit, we produce over 300 events per year, most of which are free and open to the public. These range from large events with dignitaries such as Hillary Clinton and Jimmy Carter to local poets in the River Styx Reading Series. We host nine book clubs of our own (including Ferguson Reads, Gay Men's Reading Group, Lesbian Reading Group, Nerdy Girl Society Graphic Novel Book Club, Great Novels of the 22nd Century, Novel Ideas, Shakespeare Festival Reads, Summer Never Ends and Writers Read as well as "Pop Up" reading groups that move through one author or theme and disband once finished) and sell books to many, many other private book groups. We also offer a weekly story time. We partner with three library systems, many churches, public and private schools and other community institutions to bring this type of programming to our city, and work with them to encourage literacy.
Our customer service philosophy is deceptively simple - to make each person feel better than they did before they talked to us. This philosophy guides every decision we make where a customer is concerned, from greeting each person when they enter, to the "no pointing" rule requiring booksellers to walk the person to the book rather than point them in the direction. Sometimes all it takes to make someone feel better is to offer them a place to sit while waiting for the bus (which we did by adding a bench to our sidewalk) or offer inexpensive and convenient shipping (which we do by offering 99 cent shipping and same day delivery in St. Louis) - but we take feeling better more seriously. Our interactions with our customers are more than simple transactions; they are relationships. Sometimes to make someone feel better, you have to not only learn from them, but help them grow.
Left Bank Books strives to be a good neighbor and, like many locally-owned businesses, gives back to its community. Besides reinvesting three times more of our revenue locally than non-local chain stores reinvest, we also give a lot of organic support to grass roots and non-profit organizations through donations of gift certificates, percent of sales, book fairs and even free event programming.
Our store was founded with and holds a rich tradition of community involvement. In 2008, a collection of current and former owners and other community members formed The Left Bank Books Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting literacy and the literary arts in the St. Louis area by providing books, author events, and related programming to primary and secondary school students, disadvantaged populations, and all St. Louisans. Through this nonprofit organization, we raise funds for such projects as our River City Readers Program. Created as a store project in 2009 and moved to the foundation in 2011 but managed by the bookstore staff entirely, this program focuses on our struggling public schools. Over 41% of children in the city of St. Louis are living below the poverty line while 85% of students enrolled in St. Louis Public Schools meet the requirements for the free- or reduced-lunch program. Over 1,700 children in St. Louis City are homeless at some point in the school year. Many of these kids do not have books in their households and have not learned to read for pleasure. While we can't fix a generations deep poverty problem, we can inspire young children to read for fun which encourages and enables them to learn, dream and succeed (and maybe even work in our bookstore some day). Studies have shown that children who read early in their lives with confidence and for pleasure stay in school longer and get better jobs. So far, River City Readers has distributed 3,482 books to students at Washington Montessori Elementary School, Patrick Henry Downtown Academy, and Gateway Middle School.
Sponsorship for a student is $20 every other month or a one time $100 tax deductible donation, and this ensures students receive a book every other month of the school year of their very own to keep and start their own personal library. When circumstances allow, we bring authors to their schools so that they can meet them and ask questions. These kids are thrilled to receive these books and the competent, but undersupported teachers are able to use them for class projects if they wish. Everybody wins.
The Left Bank Books Angel Tree Book Drive is an annual holiday event that allows our customers to purchase a book and donate it directly to a child in need. In the past, we have worked with Teach for America and the St. Louis Public School District to distribute individually wrapped and personally addressed books to children in pre-kindergarten through the sixth grade.
This past year, we partnered with Airport Elementary School in the Ferguson-Florissant School district, an area that has been under much turmoil since the shooting of Michael Brown over the summer. This particular school is currently working to increase the amount of students reading at or above grade level by at least 10% per grade by the end of this year. With 100% of the students qualifying for free- or reduced-lunch, many of the students are not able to afford home libraries to help toward this goal.
Through Angel Tree, we were able not only to bring a book to each of their 326 students, but also for every teacher to add to their classroom, with additional books for the school library. By partnering with authors such as Paula Stokes, Antony John, Cole Gibsen, Sarah Bromley and Shawntelle Madison to spread the word on social media, we received donations not only from our customers in store, but online from all over Missouri, Illinois, Arizona, New Jersey, Vermont, and Pennsylvania.
In addition to the libraries, schools and other institutions in our area, we work with other bookstores. In 2011, Co-Owner Jarek Steele co-founded the St. Louis Independent Bookstore Alliance. The group worked together to host two literary bookstore cruises through the city, joint author events, Lit in the Lou, a book festival in St. Louis and a "ReadMOB" under the Arch for the first World Book Night. We are partnering for Independent Bookstore Day 2015 as well.
The store also donates books, gift certificates and occasionally (when we're feeling flush) money to Planned Parenthood of St. Louis, University City Public Library, The Ethical Society of St. Louis, Stray Animal Rescue, Metro Trans Umbrella Group, Boys and Girls Club of St. Louis, homeless shelters, prisons, schools and many other worthy causes.
Left Bank Books workers are a fiercely committed group. Many of us are writers, performers, and artists and personally appreciate the importance of a store like Left Bank, not only to the cultural health of a community, but to the health of its creative people, too! Many of us are involved in other community organizations as volunteers and activists. Issues like peace, racial justice, civil rights, urban sustainability, education, animal rights, and support for the arts are some of the areas in which Left Bankers are involved.
Left Bank Books has always carried a diverse selection of books, striving to represent subjects and communities that are often under-represented elsewhere. Co-Owner, Kris Kleindienst uses over 40 years of buying experience, great instinct, help from assistant buyer, Randy Schiller, Children's buyer Sarah Holt and a little luck to curate our selection. We had the first (and only) women’s studies, glbt and African American sections in the city. We have long sought out children’s books with strong female characters and diverse characters. Since the city of St. Louis is nearly 50% African American, we have always tried to carry books that represent that demographic. We strive to carry books that mean something to our neighbors. In the Fall of 2001 that meant sifting through what was largely academic titles on the Middle East to help folks make sense of 9/11. In Fall of 2014 it meant that we could help folks put the events in our neighboring Ferguson in a larger context through hand-selling books we had long been carrying and even staff-picking. We can order anything in print for our customers, but like any bookstore, we have a finite number of shelf feet. We choose to fill those limited number of feet with the most intelligent and diverse selection of well-written books available with a consistent eye for quality and importance. And sometimes, just plain fun.
Success is more than avoiding failure.
While tradition, dependability and continuity are essential to our business plan, we aren't afraid of new ideas, and we love jumping in and fleshing out projects that introduce books to people. From our annual literary advent calendar staff pick countdown to driving across the state to sell books in a distant home town to recruiting kids to read and review upcoming books we'll try just about anything once.
This past year we developed Mixed Messages Press and published our first book, A Wedding Song for Poorer People by Flannery O'Connor Award Winner Alfred DePew. It is a finalist in Forward Review's INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award for LGBT Fiction. Finding our way through this process has helped us understand even more of the industry we love from inception to editing to painstaking layout challenges to wholesale discount schedules to marketing and promotion to the giddy moment when that first book in all its beauty and glory rests in your hands at long last.
SOME RECENT ACHIEVEMENTS
Riverfront Times Best Bookstore 2014
"It hosts the busiest reading series in the city, it has a diverse staff (in terms of gender, age, race, sexual preference) who all know what they're selling, and its shelves represent that staff. Iain Banks regularly on the shelf? Come on, that's impressive, especially because he hasn't been on the charts for years. That commitment to great books rather than au courant bestsellers is carried throughout the store, section by section. It is also engaged with their community and the larger St. Louis region; Left Banks' new FergusonReads group is a socially conscious book club that will read and discuss books dealing with race in St. Louis and America."
Alive Magazine Hot List - Best Local Book Store
"A large selection of both new and used books coupled with a commitment to the community has earned this literary staple a nod on our honor roll. No matter your fancy, you’ll find the perfect book to sink your nose into—and perhaps meet the author at one of the many in-store events and signings throughout the year. Become a member of the Friends program and your purchases will support the LBB Foundation, a nonprofit that provides books and programming to those in need. Central West End, 314.367.6731."
Kris Kleindienst, Co-Owner Left Bank Books
Jarek Steele, Co-Owner Left Bank Books
Sarah Holt, Children's Buyer Left Bank Books
American Booksellers Association Indies Introduce New Voices Panel Member
No independent bookstore would be complete without a cat. Left Bank's first feline staff member was the legendary Captain Nemo, who was rescued from drowning (hence the name) and nursed back to health by the store owners. Nemo lived with us for fifteen years. He was grouchy, particular, and loved by all. After Nemo's passing, we were joined by a new and equally literary cat. Our customers named her Jamaica after noted author Jamaica Kincaid. Author and cat have met. Jamaica (the cat) passed away April 2005.
We were adopted by a very vocal and insistent kitty a few months after Jamaica's death. Spike enjoys long naps on the Special Orders desk, dancing for cat treats and shoplifting mouse-sized, furry covered children's books for his own pleasure.