While Books & Books was selected as PW’s Bookstore of the Year, our judges felt that another store, St. Louis’s 46-year-old Left Bank Books, deserves recognition for exemplifying what an independent bookstore can and should do to serve its community during a crisis.
The shooting death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American, at the hands of a white police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson last August touched off months of civil unrest in the region and around the country. Since then, Left Bank has provided sanctuary for the greater St. Louis community. The store didn’t just keep its lights on and its doors open; it also extended its hours during the wave of demonstrations that roiled St. Louis in the fall while other businesses in the neighborhood shut down. Store personnel also created an online reading list titled Black Lives Matter, for those who wanted to better understand the issues and the incident within its larger historical context. The list currently features 77 fiction and nonfiction titles for both adults and children about race issues and the civil rights movement.
“We solicited suggestions from anyone who wanted to contribute,” store co-owner Kris Kleindienst says of the list, which includes classics such as 1961’s Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin, and recent titles such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (New Press, 2012).
Kleindienst quickly realized that in addition to reading, people needed to talk about what had happened. The store launched a reading group called Ferguson Reads to discuss books on its Black Lives Matter list. Sixty people showed up at that first meeting in September to talk about The New Jim Crow. The group continues to meet, with up to 10 members in attendance. The store will host the discussions “as long as it needs to happen,” Kleindienst says. Sometimes “it feels like a therapy group,” she notes, while at others “it’s less personal and there’s more anger.”
During the holiday season, the store offered a gift-book program, with enough customers purchasing books that 326 students and all of their teachers at an elementary school in Ferguson each received a book. Big banners with the words Black Lives Matter hang outside the store, and Left Bank is selling yard signs with the slogan on behalf of a local church group.
In an email nominating Left Bank as PW’s Bookstore of the Year, Tim Hand, a John Wiley sales rep who has lived in St. Louis for almost 25 years, explained that the store “focused on promoting and selling resources that the entire community was in dire need of to help us understand the volatile history of race relations in the greater St. Louis region. Never was St. Louis in greater need of what [Left Bank] does so well.”
Perseus Books Group rep Johanna Hynes notes that Left Bank’s mission statement affirms its commitment to sparking “public conversation by curating an intelligent, relevant, culturally diverse selection of books.” She adds, “We, who are dedicated to independent bookselling, often tout the examples of what indies can do that the chains, or Amazon, can’t do. [Left Bank’s] advocacy embodies what we want a bookstore to be. Left Bank is a place to come together, a place to learn, and a place to be when the values of our democracy are challenged by fear and uncertainty. For more than 15 years as both their sales rep and as a customer, I have admired their dedication to bookselling and their very tangible commitment to their community.”
Kleindienst, who has worked at Left Bank since 1974, has co-owned the store since 1977—first with Barry Leibman, then, since 2006, with her spouse, Jarek Steele. Kleindienst and Steele met in 2002 when he began working at Left Bank.
Recalling the days immediately following Brown’s death, Kleindienst describes the atmosphere in the store, for both employees and customers, as “very emotional.” Brown’s death, she says, stirred up “a lot of issues that were not really being discussed in the mainstream in our community, or in this country.” Store personnel, including one employee who lives in Ferguson, “cast about” for what the bookstore could do during such a volatile time.
“We realized that we could do what we [already] do,” Kleindienst says. “Be a place for conversation. I hope we have contributed to some sanity in the conversation. That’s important to me.”