Jarek “Jay” Steele and Kris Kleindienst, co-owners of 45-year-old Left Bank Books, which hosts more than 300 events a year, talk about the many ways the bookstore meets its mission—“to spark public conversation by curating an intelligent, relevant, culturally diverse selection of books”—and serves readers in and around St. Louis.
What is Left Bank Books known for?
Kris: Longevity. Integrity. Spike, our cat. Great author events. Spike, our cat. Turning down an author event with Henry Kissinger. Unlike Cambodia and Laos, we could say “no, thank you.”
If Left Bank were a religion, what would be its icons and tenets?
Jarek: Wait, it’s not a religion? The church of Left Bank’s stained glass windows would probably depict the epic philosophical struggle between what the computer says we have on hand and what we think we have on hand. There would be saintly statues of cats placed strategically around the sanctuary so that they would fall off the edges of things. Community service would be the price of sainthood, and the holy text would change each season, focusing on literary fiction, LGBT equality, minority rights, regional history, and occasional Internet cartoon humor. Tent revivals would be staffed by booksellers, and tithes would be collected using Square.
According to the American Booksellers Association, indie bookstores have incre ased their numbers in the past five years. What gives your bookstore and indies in general their staying power?
Kris: We are not selling shoes. We are a community space where ideas get discussed. This larger social mission and a love of love and sheer force of will are behind what drives a lot of booksellers to work for practically nothing for far longer than someone in another kind of business. We really are the “third place” in a lot of folks’ lives. We continue to be relevant, even central, to the cultural and social lives of our communities. People get enough hollowness everywhere else.
Can you talk about Left Bank’s role within the St. Louis community, particularly in light of the shooting of Michael Brown?
Jarek: This is a tough question—not because it wasn’t evident to us what we should do and how we should react to the shooting and the violence after that, but because it happened 8 miles from our front door. Some of our staff live near there. We all had personal connections to this in one way or another. Our staff is small but diverse. Of the 17 of us, only two are white, heterosexual, cisgender men, and we all, each and every one of us, have a deep love of our community. Many of us participated in protests. In fact, it was in the parking lot across the street from the Ferguson police station where our store manager, Wintaye, Kris, and I discussed what would become the Black Lives Matter reading list. The tension in our town grew into s omething none of us could recognize, and we talked about it at a staff meeting, challenging ourselves to be better than the fear and anger. We understood the impulse of other businesses to board up their windows or close if protesters showed up, but we made a very conscious decision to open our arms and hearts and love our neighbors through this, no matter what. After all, we aren’t just a part of our community. We are our community. Taking any more credit for anything beyond that seems wrong. This bookstore exists as a place of learning, reflection, discussion, and refuge. If we can’t at least do that, we’ve failed.
What are some of the bookstore’s top current handsells?
Kris: Bettyville. The Crane Wife. Girl on a Train. The New Jim Crow. Get in Trouble. Americanah. Bad Feminist.
What is your ideal busman’s holiday?
Kris: An all-expenses-paid trip to Paris with a long, leisurely visit to the Left Bank for the books, the wine, and the food. But we’ll settle for a visit to any town with an independent bookstore or two. Omaha recently turned up a great used bookstore we could have spent a month or two exploring.Karen Schechner is the senior Indie editor.