Left Bank Books has now stood at the southwest corner of Euclid and McPherson in St. Louis’ Central West End for 50 years.
As neighboring bars, restaurants, boutiques, and art galleries have come and gone, Left Bank–the last independent bookstore in the city selling new as well as used books–has weathered seismic shifts in book retailing, shopping habits, and the physical form of the book itself.
With e-tailing giant Amazon showing no signs of slowing down, is Left Bank shaking on its shelves? Not if you ask co-owner Kris Kleindienst.
“This is a great moment for independent bookstores,” says Kleindienst, who owns the store with her partner, Jarek Steele. “In the last several years, more independent stores have opened, and membership in the American Booksellers Association [ABA] is growing.”
Kleindienst credits booksellers for the turnaround.
“We have worked hard to put the message out that shopping local is healthier,” she says. “A local store generates three times the revenue for the community than a chain store, and a ton more than Amazon.”
Part of the reason for Amazon’s negative impact: most states don’t charge taxes on the company’s sales, allowing them to siphon off money that the bricks-and-mortar stores pay.
Then there’s Amazon’s promotional and other “fees,” which put all publishers at a significant financial disadvantage.
As an ABA board member, Kleindienst is concerned about the potential antitrust violations of such practices.
“Books are a gateway drug for [Amazon CEO Jeff] Bezos,” Kleindienst explains. “They are a loss leader to get people online.”
In fact, according to a 2014 New Yorker article, “book sales in the U.S. now make up no more than seven per cent of [Amazon’s] roughly seventy-five billion dollars in annual revenue.”
But independent bookstores’ success is not just about dollars, Kleindienst says.
“People are returning to the bookstore experience after the curiosity and love affair with the Internet fades,” she says. “They find it hollow and come to appreciate the experience that bookstores offer. Bookstores trade in the marketplace of ideas.”
For example, during the crisis that started in Ferguson in August 2014, Left Bank became a place for people to gather and talk about what was happening. Employees at the store created a Ferguson reading list that went viral and was adopted by professors. Next came Ferguson Reads, a reading group committed to starting conversations around race and justice in the community.
“You don’t get that kind of involvement from the head of a corporation in another state who answers to shareholders,” Kleindienst says. “Our customers and our employees are big First Amendment people. They appreciate someone owning their position, starting dialogues, having conversations. Everyone doesn’t agree, but everyone respects each other’s positions.”
Left Bank started in 1969 at 6321 Delmar, on The Loop. The brainchild of a group of antiwar Washington University students, it was a place St. Louisans could find “dangerous” materials–“like Rolling Stone magazine,” Kleindienst laughs.
She came on board in 1974. As the founders went off to pursue other careers, the store was sold to a pair of brothers and fell on hard times. Kleindienst “bought” the store with Barry Leibman by assuming its debt in 1977.
“We knew we needed to move, but we were so broke, we didn’t have enough money,” she recalls. “When we said that in front of a customer one day, he suggested asking customers for donations. We collected $5,000, got a bank loan based on that, and moved here.”
That was the beginning of the Friends of Left Bank Books. Donations from the Friends now go to the Left Bank Books Foundation, which buys books and pays for authors’ visits for St. Louis Public School students.
“St. Louis Public Schools have their hands full, but we can encourage literacy by bringing in relevant books to make reading compelling and fun,” Kleindienst says.
The Foundation also funds author events that support other Left Bank program, like a visit from Glee actor and fantasy novelist Chris Colfer.
“He is a big supporter of a lot of our causes, like LGBT rights,” says Kleindienst, “but we needed a bigger site for him. The Foundation helps to offset costs on events that are important to the community but won’t pay for themselves on booksales alone.”
That’s good news for Left Bank’s employees, most of whom are full-time booksellers–and good news for St. Louis.
“We are one of the most involved businesses in the community,” Kleindienst says. “We’re here to stay.”