St. Louis is celebrating a lot of important anniversaries this year: the 200th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, which started out in nearby St. Charles; the 100th anniversary of the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, where both the ice cream cone and iced tea were introduced; and, this summer, Left Bank Books will celebrate its 35th anniversary as a worker-owned cooperative venture. Left Bank is the only full-service independent bookstore left in a city that once boasted a number of independent bookstores, most of which closed within the past decade. As a result, for the past several years, Left Bank almost single-handedly has maintained St. Louis's reputation as an essential stop on the author national tour circuit. Today, Left Bank Books is regarded as one of the Midwest's premier bookstores.
Like many women's, gay/lesbian, and political bookstores all over the country, Left Bank Books is a product of the '60s. Its history parallels the transformation of American society in the past 30 years, as it evolved from groovy hippie collective with negative assets to a professionally run business that grossed more than $1 million in sales last year and has hosted such luminaries as Hillary Clinton, Al Franken and Garrison Keillor.
The Early Days
Left Bank was founded by a group of Washington University sociology graduate student activists in 1969. "They were involved in anti-war work and felt they needed a place to get stuff they could not get elsewhere," co-owner Kris Kleindienst told PW. "It was a big deal that they carried The Whole Earth Catalog; you couldn't get something like that anywhere else in St. Louis in the '60s."
Besides The Whole Earth Catalog, early bestsellers at the Left Bank included works by Franz Fanon, Malcolm X and Simone de Beauvoir. "What sold in those early days was the stuff that came out of radical social change movement, both here in this country and internationally," Kleindienst said.
Left Bank operated on a shoestring in its early days. According to Kleindienst, the founders of the store started out with less than $1,000 in seed money to make their dream a reality. "The store was tiny, maybe 600 square feet and had, at most, a few hundred titles in its inventory. The books were all donated from people's personal collections, and the shelves were pieced together," Kleindienst said. "It wasn't a business: it was a tool for social change."
Left Bank operated as a worker-owner collective for about five years. As its founders moved on with their lives, they started hiring employees to run the store. Kleindienst, hired in 1974, was one of the store's first paid employees.
Not long after Kleindienst was hired by the store's original owners, two brothers—an activist and an accountant—bought the store. Although, with an accountant aboard, the store became more of a real business and less of a loose collective, the store hit hard times in the mid-'70s.
"We really started to struggle," said Kleindienst. The store, located near the Washington University campus, had to compete with the newly expanded Washington University Bookstore and with Paul's Books, another independent that opened in the Forest Park neighborhood adjacent to the university.
Because of the nearby competition, the store's two owners decided to move the store to the opposite end of Forest Park, away from Washington University. They found a building in which to house their store, and, according to Kleindienst, "an old hippie type gave us a great deal on the rent."
Customers Save the Day
There was one problem. The store's owners were broke. "We had a new location, but no money to move," Kleindienst said. "We were $10,000 in debt to publishers. The amount seems small today, but at the time, it was huge." But, as has been the case with other bookstores socked with seemingly insurmountable debts (Amazon Bookstore Co-op in Minneapolis and the Ruminator in St. Paul spring to mind), the store's patrons saved the day. Left Bank received $5,000 in donations to facilitate a move to St. Louis's Central West End neighborhood in 1977. It's been there ever since and has expanded from 900 square feet to its current 3,000-sq.-ft. space with 10,000 titles in inventory.
"It was a nice fit for us, a neighborhood full of art galleries, restaurants and antique stores," Kleindienst recalled. "It was great: the neighborhood welcomed us with open arms. We sold better the first day in our new location than we did the entire last week in our old neighborhood. It was like night and day."
Three months after the move to the Central West End, the two brothers sold the store to Kleindienst and another store employee, Barry Leibman. The two currently have 13 employees on staff.
"We were booksellers. We did not know a thing about business when we bought the store," Kleindienst told PW. "We learned how to run a business on the fly. It was a tough first six months. Two major publishers even put us on hold during those first six months."
Kleindienst attributes the store's successful first year under new ownership to receiving help from colleagues in the industry. "The sales reps were phenomenal. They really stuck by us and helped us learn the ropes. Reps like Carl Lennertz—then a Random House rep—really went to bat for us. We came out of our hole and became a business, a business that has always maintained our progressive focus. We could not have survived if we did not start acting like a business. That's how things shake out."
Kleindienst and Leibman expanded the store's traditional focus on progressive issues to include contemporary literature and 20th century art and culture, with a special attention to feminist, gay/lesbian, and African-American authors. As more publishers started releasing multicultural children's books, the store expanded its offerings in that area as well.
Working Out Kinks
The store's new owners also worked out the kinks in the cooperative nature of the store. Since Kleindienst and Leibman bought the store in 1977, they've had four partners share a stake in the company. "For many years after we took over the store, those of us who worked here had a weird collective. After all, not all workers were owners. We rotated jobs for a while. But it got awkward. We settled into positions: Barry does finances and I do the buying."
By the early '90s, the store was again in peril. This time, it was a combination of the recession and the emergence of the chain bookstores. "We lost money for 10 years. I don't know how we stayed open—through sheer force of will, I suppose. I don't know how we did it. It was miserable, competing against chains," Kleindienst said.
"But the ABA really came alive at a very critical time for us," Kleindienst recalled. "First with the lawsuit and then with Book Sense." Left Bank Books was one of the 26 bookseller plaintiffs in the American Booksellers Association's 1998 antitrust lawsuit against Barnes & Noble and Borders. "The lawsuit did affect the discount structure and co-op. So we could be more competitive."
Many other booksellers in St. Louis did not possess the same steely determination demonstrated by Left Bank in weathering the storms of the '90s. Paul's Books, City Books on Olive and Our World Too were among the local bookstores that closed by the end of the decade, and the Library Ltd. was bought by Borders. Left Bank Books survived thanks to the community.
The arts editor of a local alternative newspaper started up a Friends of Left Bank Books group in the late '90s. All proceeds from the $35 membership fee went to support Left Bank. "That saved us," said Kleindienst. "It generated so much income. These were average citizens coming together in a grassroots way to make a difference in the deep dark '90s because they recognized the importance of an independent bookstore in the cultural life of a city."
Currently, the active membership of the Friends of Left Bank Books stands at about 150. In return for their financial support, members receive a store calendar of events and are invited to receptions with authors on tour. They are also invited to members-only special sales twice per year. Kleindienst and Leibman are considering revising the program this year to include a discount card that members can use whenever they visit the store.
While the Friends of Left Bank Books gave the ailing store a much-needed jolt of dollars, Kleindienst and Liebman realized that they could not rely simply on the kindness of their patrons, friends and other supporters in order to survive in the harsh world of 21st-century bookselling. Consequently, the two booksellers opened a coffee shop on the store premises in 1995, set up an extensive and highly profitable used book section (10% of its entire inventory) and now sponsor art shows in an in-store gallery space.
Left Bank Books also stepped up its collaboration with other organizations to bring authors to St. Louis. It has co-sponsored highly successful author events with a number of organizations in the metro area, including the St. Louis Public Library and the Literacy Council of St. Louis. On- and off-site events have included some of the biggest authors in publishing. Kleindienst is proud that she and her colleagues have helped keep St. Louis on the radar screen of the major publishers. "I don't mean to sound cocky," she told PW, "but we've changed this town in terms of landing author events. My ultimate goal is to convince New York that we're an 'A' town!"
Kleindienst admits to hosting some mainstream author events at her left-wing store, but she's reconciled herself to having to redefine and expand the store's niche to remain competitive with the chains. "We've had to adjust our store's mission now as the only independent left in St. Louis. We don't want to see an author go to a chain if we can help it. Our programming continues to reflect our mission, though, with our participation in St. Louis Gay Pride and in First Civilizations [a St. Louis nonprofit African-American literary organization]."
As can be expected, current bestsellers at Left Bank include much more mainstream titles than those that moved when the store first opened. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant and Life of Pi by Yann Martel are both perennial bestsellers at the store. But so are books by Paul Krugman, Greg Palast and Noam Chomsky. "It's still pretty much the same mix—the politics has evolved, but we still sell political books, the contemporary equivalents of what we started out selling back in 1969. People are still reading solid history and political science."
Now that the store seems to be solidly in the black, Kleindienst can breathe a sigh of relief. Compared to many struggling bookstores in the country, the future looks rosy for Left Bank. "We have stabilized, but we are very aware of the capriciousness of fortune," she said. "The economy sucks, and the chains have slowed. But book sales at nonbook outlets are still a factor."
"We got in this as a vehicle for political and social change," Kleindienst concluded. "We learned business practices, but we never did this for the money. When things got bad, we didn't close, though we considered it. We just gritted our teeth and slogged on. And we'll continue to do so."