Barry Leibman's turning a new page and leaving Left Bank
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 25, 2009 - In front of a sunny window facing out on the Wednesday afternoon bustle along Euclid Avenue, Barry Leibman is content to reflect on the most important career move of his life.
In 1975, he took a job that didn't need to be filled. "They had an opening because a person was leaving to go to writer's school in Iowa. She decided not to go," remembered Leibman with a smile, "but I'd already been hired."
"I unquit," chuckled Kris Kleindienst, the then-aspiring writer who wanted a second bite at the position she'd just left.
The thorny problem had an appropriately Solomonic conclusion. The job would be split in half. It was a fitting, if odd, way to begin a partnership that would last for almost 35 years.
Not just anybody could parlay a job opportunity that shouldn't have existed at a struggling bookstore that seemingly shouldn't have been in business into a multi-decade career at an institution that's now a household name in St. Louis. But Barry Leibman isn't just anybody and Left Bank Books isn't just any bookstore.
"He's the best boss I've ever worked with," said Shane Signorino, a customer-turned-employee at the Euclid location. "He's full of great stories. He's an old-school hippie, and he still retains that ideology. He's so warm-hearted I call him my surrogate dad."
"He has a really big heart and people are drawn to him," Kleindienst said. "He's always the one that people at the store seek out to confide in. When people get wigged out about whatever, he's an ear they trust."
"I love Barry," said Jarek Steele, who now co-owns Left Bank with Kleindienst and Leibman. "He's a friend, a co-worker."
"I consider him family," he added.
Grew Up in the Midwest
Family began for Leibman in the small town of Taft, Calif. The son of an Air Force lieutenant and a homemaker, Leibman was born on a nearby air base, though he largely grew up in the Midwest after a move to Kansas City.
After graduating from the University of Kansas with a degree in English and American studies and doing a stint in the Peace Corps, he arrived in St. Louis in 1968 as part of the National Teacher Corps program, now known as Teach for America. Later, he became director of the English curriculum at Sophia House, an afterschool program that helped prepare African-American students for college.
"I thought I'd be here two years," Leibman said. "Instead, I met some really interesting people."
He met a lot of them at Left Bank, a small Delmar Loop bookstore fueled by more idealism than capital, where he began working after the recession strangled off funding for Sophia House. By the late '70s, a $1,000 stake left Leibman in an ownership role through an assumption of the struggling enterprise's debts. Kleindienst bought in about six months later.
In 1977, Left Bank, faced with increased competition and bankrolled with $5,000 in donations from customers, relocated to the Central West End, a move that seems more prescient in retrospect than perhaps it did at the time.
"It was really unusual for a commercial entity -- if you would call us a commercial entity -- to go east," Leibman said. "The movement of the city has always been west but this area was just beginning to have a kind of urban renaissance."
That renaissance and the increased traffic it brought would help to keep Left Bank in business through the years to come as other nearby independent outlets shut down due to competition from chains.
Struggle to Stay Alive
Today, Leibman notes that larger, more general interest retailers, such as Target and Wal-Mart have entered bookselling in a big way, each trying to undercut the other.
"The thing that interests me about the current war between the chains is that it is about books," he said. "Even with the advent of the e-book, for conveying information and turning people onto new ideas, the book is still the thing. It's something that I think both demeans the book by pricing it so low but also elevates it in terms of its importance. It's a very strange mix but it gives me hope."
For Left Bank, that's been a hope tinged with heartburn. If the rise of the chains was the frying pan, Amazon was the fire. The advent of the Web-based giant created a world where book buying was never easier and traditional book selling was never more challenging. The result was yet another constant battle to stay alive -- a circumstance that's become so familiar to the store's leadership team that today it seems more a cherished tradition than an ongoing threat.
"We've lived with it so long, I actually don't know what it would be like not to feel this way," Kleindienst said. "My normal would be somebody else's intolerable. I think that that's true for Barry, too."
Bookselling may have entered the age of electronic technology; but for Leibman, it's been a slow process. Calling him "a member of the lead pencil club" Kleindienst recalls how long it took just to get her partner to agree to use a typewriter for business letters.
"He did not come willingly into the computer age," she laughed. "One of our first struggles as business partners in the late '70s was me convincing him that it wasn't selling out if we had a telephone system where we could put people on hold."
New Love in Art
Leibman may not have taken to the joy of typewriters or new fangled phone systems, but when someone bought him a set of watercolor paints during the late '80s, it was love at first sight. Since then, Leibman, who works primarily with oil sticks and the medium of collage, has had a dozen or so shows of his work, some as far away as New York and North Carolina. His more recent shows have been at the Philip Slein Gallery but his latest work will premiere at the Sheldon in February in an exhibit based on the music of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler.
"He composed nine symphonies and died before he could hear the ninth one," he said. "The last part of that symphony, which is an adagio, a slower movement, is so beautiful it just captivated me."
The local arts scene has also captivated Leibman, and he's watched it expand substantially. Since his introduction to the Gateway City more than four decades ago such institutions as the Contemporary Art Museum, just a block from Leibman's small studio, have opened for business. Meanwhile, he's been more than a passive observer of the city's cultural growth.
In addition to his own contributions to St. Louis' artistic tapestry, Leibman has made sure that Left Bank offers a small gallery that up-and-coming artists can use to showcase their materials, something he hopes will provide fresh talent with an accessible venue.
Leibman said that over the years he's seen art and culture in the city follow a predictable pattern.
"It burgeons and then it kind of solidifies," he said. "One of the reasons I've always been so proud of this bookstore is that I've always felt that culture starts at the bottom and moves up. It's not imposed. New ideas and vibrancy happen. Then the larger society picks it up and solidifies it and that becomes art."
Shifting currents in the culture aren't the only differences between now and then. A glance out onto Euclid is enough to stir thoughts on times past. The street seems a world apart from where it was when Left Bank first arrived in the Central West End.
"Sometimes I don't think that being so close to it you actually see the change," Leibman said. "When we moved here, you could rent an apartment for $75. Now they're almost all condos."
Leibman doesn't take much prodding to find a nostalgic frame of mind, a fact perhaps indicative of the upcoming changes in his own life. When Leibman's show closes in May, he won't be here to see it. He and Caroline, his wife of 11 years, will be leaving town for Whidbey Island, Wash., an isle 20 minutes from Seattle by ferry at the north end of Puget Sound. He leaves Left Bank at the end of the year. True to the spirit of the organization, he's not being bought out. He's simply giving back his share of a business that's never been about the money. The important thing, he says, is that the store will have a future.
Leibman, who turns 65 this month, has one, too, of course. But don't ask him what it is. The slate is as blank as one of his canvases before he starts work. He knows he wants to concentrate more on his art but, beyond that, has few firm plans. In that sense, it feels a lot like when he came to St. Louis in the first place.
Well, not quite.
"Back then, I had a job," he laughed. "Sometimes it's more scary than exciting and sometimes it's more exciting than scary but I think it's important to keep adventure in your life and this is part of that."
Though his presence has always been low-key, shoppers and employees at Left Bank seem certain to notice his absence. Kleindienst puts it succinctly.
"I think he's been just quietly one of those people who has made a big difference in St. Louis," she said. "Most people don't realize what they have in this store and how much this one person had to do with it."
This article was done in partnership with the Jewish Light.
David Baugher is a freelance writer.