Photo: Left Bank Books co-owner Kris Kleindienst stands in the bookstore’s doorway, then and now.
By Meg Cook
Last weekend, Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri celebrated its 45th anniversary. The independent bookstore serves the “Gateway to the West” with their large collection of new and used books, and a mission to offer the community “an intelligent, culturally diverse selection of titles with a focus on politics, contemporary arts and literature, high-quality children’s books, African American interest, GLBT titles and more.” Left Bank has never moved from its location in the Central West End of St. Louis – a historic literary neighborhood that has been home to William Burroughs, T.S. Elliot, and Tennessee Williams, among others.
Left Bank Books opened its doors in 1969, quickly becoming a mainstay of St. Louis’ cultural scene. The store’s co-owner, Kris Kleindienst, recalls that Left Bank was an early resource for progressive literature in St. Louis – unafraid to sell books “espousing socialism, feminism and black liberation” (as well as being the only place one could purchase Rolling Stone). The bookstore’s history is intertwined with the literary history of St. Louis; Kleindienst says author Anita Diamont was an early supporter, of which she is grateful to this day. Left Bank has hosted such huge names as Cornel West, Sapphire, and Elizabeth Gilbert in their early days – a testament to their belief in the importance of nurturing budding writers and thinkers.
It only makes sense that a store as creative and diverse as Left Bank celebrated its anniversary with events like “Writers Under Glass,” where Authors Mark Tiedemann (Gravity Box and Other Spaces), Ann Leckie (Ancillary Justice), Kevin Killeen (Try to Kiss a Girl), and Scott Phillips (Hop Alley) participated in a group short story at Left Bank, complete with audience interaction and prizes. Young adult novelist Heather Brewer (The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod) also stopped by for the celebration.
In an age teeming with Amazon Prime-quickness and Barnes & Noble megastores, what really is the importance of independent bookselling? “I think that independent bookstores really occupy an important cornerstone in the cultural life of a city, and we’re the literary place for a community,” says Kleindienst, who has seen the store grow through the years. “We can take stands, we don’t just sell product. A good independent bookstore is a defender of democratic values: free speech, freedom of the press. That can get overlooked in the conversation a lot of times.” Community involvement is a huge part of Left Bank, and the store tries to give back in the same way.
Kleindienst knows that a big draw for her bookstore — and an attribute of its longevity and success — is the author events. That draw, she says, starts locally. “Nurturing local writers and being a resource for them is very significant.” Kleindienst notices that independent bookstores tend to serve as a “home base [for local authors]; a place they can refer people to, a go-to for events. And they’re just good people!” Throughout the years, Left Bank has certainly become a go-to for literary events in St. Louis including regular author signings, release parties, and reading groups.
Kleindienst’s most treasured memories at Left Bank include the smaller moments, where Left Bank and its authors were given the opportunity to help St. Louis in more intimate ways than a simple book signing. For example, when on tour with her novel Push, author Sapphire did a writing workshop at Left Bank with low-income women from the St. Louis area. Or, in the first few fragile days after 9/11, Deepak Chopra decided to finish his book tour – which led him to Left Bank where, Kleindienst remembers, “over 200 people crammed into our store to deliver words of comfort and hope. They needed this so badly.”
With almost half a century of bookselling under its belt, Left Bank has proven itself as a staple of independent bookselling – and will hopefully continue to do so for decades to come.
To check out what’s to come at Left Bank Books, visit their website here.
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