Whenever we interview prospective booksellers, we always do the two-minute gallop through the “history of the bookstore.” When I was interviewed for my job here, Barry did the honors. He talked about the group of Washington University students who summoned their collective resources (their own book collections and $500) and opened a tiny place where you could find “controversial” literature – which, in St. Louis c.1969 included Rolling Stone Magazine. Kris and Rachel listened along with me, both having heard this story several million times. I’m sure their minds wandered, but I was rapt.
The story wound its way to the present, stopping occasionally to visit the high points (visits by Jimmy Carter, William Burroughs and others) and low points (perpetual money troubles, the invasion of chain bookstores in the 90′s) and even though I was already a fan of the store, I found myself falling deeply, irrevocably in love with it.
The two minute summary of Left Bank Books’ history does as much justice to it as reciting each state in the US does to the complex history of how they got there. Great triumphs like winning the lawsuit against the publishers for violating the Robinson Patman Act bump against controversies like turning down a book event with Henry Kissinger. Small miracles like rescuing a kitten from the pond at Forest Park blossom into Left Bank Books traditions like housing a two more black kittens after him.
It’s a story of optimism, literacy, advocacy, bravery and above all, kindness. Those traits that I (and our customers) love about this store are what we aspire to be. They are what we are when we are our best selves.
Our booksellers create much of the magic here. They hand sell their favorite books. They raise money for our 501c3 Foundation which provides books to kids in underprivileged schools. They travel around the area and sell books at our over 300 author events per year. One of our former employees once lamented that even though she is happy in her new job after having moved away, it “lacks the I have an idea so I’ll walk to the other side of the basement and we’ll make awesome happen stat vibe.”
In the twelve years since my interview, I’ve devoted my resources and my career to the stewardship of this place and have, in the company of my partner and co-workers, seen it through more triumphs (Harry Potter festivals, the opening of a second store) and more struggles (still perpetual money trouble, Amazon, the closing of the second store). I have grown into an adult here, have transitioned from female to male here, have met and married my partner here and have had the most fun and the most stress here.
We all have yet to meet the next person to change our lives. For some, that person will walk through our front door, and making that opportunity possible is the best reason to be hopeful for our future.
It says something special about a place when one can address a letter to its customers and use the term “friends” genuinely, without sarcasm and still feel like it’s an understatement. That’s why we want to tell you about some changes we’re making.
Some of you have browsed our shelves from our first incarnation on Delmar, some grew up with us on Euclid, and still more have discovered us in the past five years at our downtown store on the corner of 10th and Locust. If you know us at all, you know that we face the same challenges that most independent businesses do, and that our strength is rooted in our ability to bend, shift, think, imagine and learn from our experiences.
Even though we’ve loved being part of the revival of Downtown St. Louis, we have decided to close the downtown location in the next month. We were in negotiations for several months with our landlord, but ultimately could not reach an agreement. We remain open in our flagship location in the Central West End 7 days a week, and until 10pm on 6 of those days.
We depart our downtown location with respect for our landlord and his vision. He is a great advocate for a livable downtown, and while we will no longer be in this space, we wish him the best.
We will continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of the community we serve. We will continue to pursue our robust author event schedule. Authors on our early summer calendar include: Laurell K Hamilton, Garrison Keillor, Elizabeth Gilbert, Colson Whitehead, Jeannette Walls, Jean Kwok and Mark Epstein. We will continue to partner with schools and other nonprofits in joint fundraising efforts. We will continue to operate our online bookstore, and continue to sell ebooks and ereaders as well as print books.
We will continue to contribute to the tax base of our community and support the local economy.
A few of the new plans under consideration include: expanding the CWE location, opening a second store either downtown or in another St. Louis neighborhood, and adding a coffee or a wine and beer bar to the Central West End location. Recently, our friends at the Central West End’s Vino Gallery have begun providing a pop-up cash bar at our in-store author events.
In addition, we plan to do more literacy work through the Left Bank Books Foundation, a 501c3 corporation. The Foundation’s primary program is River City Readers, a project to bring books and authors to St. Louis Public School students. We intend to expand these efforts and expand the definition of literacy itself.
Our bookstore has created a world class author event series featuring everyone from local poets to world leaders. We partner with our local libraries, churches, restaurants and others and have kept many of those events free and open to you. With the Foundation’s help, we plan to grow that programming and bring our community’s stories to life on and off the page through readings, theater, music and more.
No longer will we be bound by the notion that literacy is limited to the act of reading and writing. It is the spirit of literacy to think, imagine and learn from and question those words – to create a better world by remembering celebrating its stories.
Please continue to support us by buying your books at our store in the Central West End or online at http://www.left-bank.com. To make a tax deductible contribution to the Left Bank Books Foundation, please contact Shane Mullen at 314-367-6731 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
We think we’ve served the city well these past 45 years, and we intend to do an even better job in the years to come.
Kris Kleindienst and Jarek Steele, Co-Owners of Left Bank Books
David Bear, Bill Burkhardt, Jenni Byrne-Mosley, Jessi Duncan, Wintaye Gebru, Erin Goss, Cliff Helm, Sarah Holt, Jonesey, Evan Kleekamp, Shane Mullen, Mariah Nadler, Randy Schiller, Mark Tiedemann, Kea Wilson and Lauren Wiser, and Spike the cat – The Staff of Left Bank Books