A Look at 45 Years of Left Bank Books

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.

Kris Kleindienst at our front door 1983 and 2014

Kris Kleindienst at our front door 1983 and 2014

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Leaving Downtown

Friends,

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 shane.m@left-bank.com.

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.

Your friends,

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

A Small Business Response to Obamacare

jareksteele

Left Bank Books pays 100% of our full-time employees’ health insurance premium.

I’d like you to let that sink in for a moment, because this fact is one of the reasons I decided to become an owner of this St. Louis institution.  

I’ll also let you in on another secret – by the end of this year, my bookstore will have paid $270,550 over the past five years for health insurance.  Our group is (obviously) small; an average of 12 people are enrolled.  Each bookseller’s premium averages out to about $415 per month.  We each have a $5000 deductible.

To put that into perspective, the average paperback retails at about $15.  We pay about $8.25 to the publisher, leaving us $6.75 to pay all other expenses (rent, payroll, electricity and, yes, health insurance).  That means that we have had to sell 40,082 paperbacks at full cost…

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A Farewell, A Thank You, A Welcome

Spike, Lord and Master

The past five years of Left Bank Books’ career in St. Louis has arguably been the best we’ve had.  The supposed death of bookstores and recession be damned, we’ve done some pretty cool stuff, even if the only one who got rich and famous was Spike, our beloved bookstore cat.

After our business partner, Barry,  retired from the bookstore in 2009, Kris and I worried about whether we would be up to the task of keeping this stubborn St. Louis institution alive.  His shoes were giant, and almost impossible to fill.  Add to that  the birth of the second location of LBB downtown and the pressure was on.

One of the many fortunes we count at ye olde bookstore, is the  smart, ambitious, talented, hardworking, dedicated and patient (with both the owners and the customers) staff of booksellers we are lucky enough to have.

I’d like to take a quick moment on this blog to thank one in particular who has been with us these past five years and has grown our events series into a force to be reckoned with.

Danielle Borsch interviewed for her job at the beginning of 2008.  One of the reasons she got the interview was because her resume had honest to god footnotes and hinted at the magnetic, dynamic person she is.  We were worried because she had two other jobs – one hosting bar trivia and the other producing and acting in The Immediacy Theater troupe she formed with

Danielle Borsch, Outgoing Events Coordinator

her friends.  I wish I could go back to the meeting with Kris and Barry after that interview and tell her how wrong we were to have worried about her ability to manage her time, how she would meet and exceed our expectations.  Every. Single. Time.

The three of us grew to love her and depend on her spot-on intuition about hosting events.  During her tenure, we hosted the likes of Jimmy Carter, Tony LaRussa, Terry McMillan, Jonathen Franzen and David Sedaris (more than once) and hundreds more.

It was fitting then, that her last event with us was this past Saturday, when David Sedaris stopped at our Downtown store to read from and sign his newest book, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls.  We’ve hosted David on every one of his book tours, and knew that this event would be big.  It would need experience.  It would need stamina.  It would need talent.  It would need Danielle.

Kris and I sat on our couch scowling out the window around 3pm when we heard thunder.

We were all set up to do our outdoor listening party on the streets of downtown St. Louis complete with tents, lawn chairs, beer, food – and books – lots and lots of paper objects that don’t mix kindly with Midwestern spring weather.  I say we scowled because of the thunder, but I have to admit that my scowl was also the result of the worst ear infection I’ve ever had.  So bad, in fact, that I missed one of my favorite

The downtown listening party primed and ready to hear David Sedaris.

authors AND the last event of one of my best friends.  My sister and her friend volunteered to work the event, and around midnight, she came back to my house reporting that when David arrived, the clouds went away and the sun came out.

It was 3 am before poor Kris got home, still buzzing from the event and far past her ability to be coherent about it, but I did hear stories from that night from those who were there.  Mostly the surprises were limited to the good to the weirdly good – the giant sticker books David brought with him, from which he selected one for each customer and incorporated the sticker in the autograph of the book; the patient waiting for a lung transplant who made it to the event and talked to her favorite author; the Mormons who left a very kind note for him because they couldn’t stay.

Hannah Nutt, Incoming Events Coordinator

The event went well, and ushered in the era of our next Event Coordinator, Hannah Nutt, who, like I did when Barry left, has big shoes to fill, but I’m not worried.  She has taken the reigns and will steer this event series in her own way, with her own (many, many) strengths.  We’ve also moved one of our best booksellers, Lauren Wiser, into our events and publicity mix.

I say this because I will miss Danielle for so many reasons both professional and personal that it has been hard to untangle the layers.  I’ve been writing this blog post, and even in its writing a piece of sunshine has peaked through the thunderous clouds in my head.  I’m remembering the anxiety we’ve had every time one of our bookstore family members leaves and the uncertainty that comes along with replacing that very unique, seemingly irreplaceable person.

Lauren Wiser, Publicity Manager

I’m also remembering the hope and joy and fun in discovering the humor, strength, passion and fortitude of the new members of our family.  I can’t wait to get to know our newest member better.  I can’t wait to see what she and Lauren come up with.

As I see it, the main strength we have as a store is our ability to look forever forward.  I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do.

I can’t wait to see what we can do together.