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'We can change the world' - and 40 years later, Left Bank Books is still at it

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 16, 2009 - With a belief in the power of ideas and the backing of individuals who trusted their ability to uphold them, the owners of Left Bank Books have nurtured their Mecca of free thought for 40 years.

Like any good story, Left Bank's is full of drama: bomb squads, bankruptcy, and the fight against capitalistic giants like Amazon. Through the decades, the David bookshop in a Goliath-driven industry pushed on, eventually becoming a gem of the Central West End and a symbol of neighborhood revival downtown. This is that bookshop's story.

The Beginning

When Kris Kleindienst and Barry Leibman took over what was then a fledgling bookstore on Delmar and Limit in the U. City Loop more than 30 years ago, it was more a leap of faith than a savvy business deal.

"We bought the business in 1977 by assuming all the debts," says Leibman. When Leibman reflects on Left Bank -- and especially the business side of running the store -- his musical voice often breaks in a laugh. He does this now, crinkling his nose and raising his owl-like black spectacles ever so slightly, amused at his own naivete at the time. "We didn't really know what bankruptcy was, we just knew we had more bills than inventory. But we really wanted to do this."

The original shop that Leibman and Kleindienst took over was founded by a group of Washington University students with $500 and a collection of donated used books in 1969. "You couldn't possibly do that today!" Leibman says, seemingly amazed at how much times have changed over his lifetime.

Indeed, it was a different era.

"Then you had Mao's 'Little Red Book' on the checkout counter," says Kleindienst. "The bomb and arson squad of St. Louis Police would pay regular visits to the store" -- just to check in, she says, and make sure nothing threatening was going on.

To understand Left Bank in the '70s and why a place like it would warrant visits from the police department, you have to step back in your mind's eye (or to what you imagine your mind's eye might have been had you actually lived through the decade). You have to remember Vietnam, the Cold War, the rise of the gay liberation movement and the continued push for equal rights among African Americans. Lines had been drawn in the American consciousness and Left Bank was decidedly left-of-center.

"We focused on counterculture," says Kleindienst, who founded the women's studies and gay and lesbian sections of the store. "Newspapers didn't cover a lot of stories. A bookstore like Left Bank was a real critical source."

"We were the only place in town you could get the Rolling Stone," says Leibman.

Still, Left Bank found itself in heavy competition with the Wash U bookstore and U City's Paul's Books (since gone), and the new owners searched for a new home.

In its young life, the store had already gained a devoted group of supporters. In 1977, with $5,000 in donations from loyal customers and a bank loan of $8,000 (neither owner had any collateral), Left Bank moved east and continued business at 399 N. Euclid in the Central West End.

Deciding to move east instead of west was in itself a somewhat subversive move, remembers Leibman. But many Left Bank employees at the time lived in the Central West End and, as Leibman says, "It just seemed like us."

"The neighborhood was just starting to come back," he remembers "The rents were low and the spaces were beautiful."

In a previous life, 399 N.  Euclid had been a interior decorator's shop and a storage facility for a nearby shop, Pseudonym. Needless to say, the space needed a lot of loving care. Leibman and Kleindienst were up to the task.

"We felt we had been entrusted with this institution, and it was up to us to make it work," says Leibman. "And we wanted to make it work because we loved books."

"Stories are so critical to what we are," says Kleindienst. "You have to understand your world spiritually and emotionally. ... You have to have your stories; your story tellers have to be able to be edgy and make mistakes."

The Middle

You also have to have a place where those edgy stories can be shared. And that's the place that Left Bank strove to be. Subject areas at the time covered the burgeoning women's movement, black struggles and Western philosophy. Ironically, it was during the Reagan era that the up-and-coming left-of-center bookstore picked up momentum.

"We'd kind of caught on," says Leibman. "In the mid-'80s, we actually kind of thrived."

In 1988 the store expanded into a second bay and remodeled using $55,000 in savings and another bank loan -- this time for $25,000.

"We wanted to improve the place," says Leibman. "We had metal shelves with bricks as bookends. It was really dorm style; that's what we could afford."

It was about the same, time, however, that the dark edges of what would become the Barnes and Nobles and Borders of the book world began to creep in.

"The '90s were really difficult," says Leibman, the music out of his voice. "The whole climate of bookselling changed. Paul's went under. Library Limited in Clayton went under."

Keeping with the times even through the difficulties, Left Bank got its first computer system and shed the card catalogue in 1990. When the owners talk about the technology, both seem somewhat nostalgic for the ink-and-paper method.

"Before, when someone asked if we had a book, we'd pull out the card and walk over there," says Leibman. "The computer system totally changed the way we worked. It really separated us. ... But it made it much easier for the customer."

Kleindienst says she still keeps the old card catalogue at home and that now, with Internet and interface and telephone connections, "computer technology has gotten so annoying."

By the mid-'90s, Left Bank was finding it harder and harder to compete with 30 percent off the bestsellers list and other slashed-price specials of the chains. The store needed another loan. This time the bank wasn't so supportive, and the store had to put up $20,000 worth of collateral to get $25,000.

Again, supportive customers came through. This time in the form of Crosby Kemper III, then president of UMB bank and an avid reader; Leibman says he had 30,000 volumes at his home on Pershing Place at that time. Kemper took over the bank loan, which gave Left Bank more flexibility in the repayment.

About the same time, a customer who had donated money in 1977 approached Kleindienst at a financial low point "and asked if it was time for the friends of Left Bank again." The book store then approached Robert  Duffy, now a member of the staff of the Beacon, to "help us come up with a proper, contemporary way of holding out our hand and asking for money."

They called it the Friends of Left Bank Books Literary Society. Leibman says, "We have 300 friends now that contribute $35 to $175 per year. It became the same sort of deal we had in the beginning, only a more sophisticated deal."

The Here and Now

Just as Left Bank was squeaking by into the new century, Amazon hit the scene. If competing with the chains was bad, coming up against an online retailer that could sell things nearly at cost and wasn't required to pay sales tax in most states proved an even greater challenge.

What helped them to stay afloat is essentially what has helped them meet every challenge: community members' financial support. That was what helped them move to the CWE and then later qualify for the first bank loans -- even though the business had zero collateral. It's reflected in the ongoing support of book lovers like Crosby Kemper, the Friends of Left Bank Literary Society -- and finally now with Craig Heller's partnership offer.

“We have a really fantastic group of people who really care about this store," said Kleindienst. "If it weren’t for them, I probably would have given up.”

And there have been other bright spots, such as gaining a third owner in Jarek "Jay" Steele.

"I was hired to do the website in 2002," says Steele, "but I quickly started absorbing all these small little jobs."

Soon after Steele came on as an employee, Kleindienst and he began a relationship off the books, so to speak.

"It was a good thing to find somebody I loved who did something I loved," says Steele.

Eventually, Steele took over as a third owner "essentially in true Left Bank tradition by taking on the liabilities," he says.

For Steele, who had frequented the store on trips to the city in his younger years, getting on board as an owner was like finding a second home.

"I remember being so excited I actually had a key to Left Bank Books," he said, "I thought, 'I can go to Left Bank whenever I want.'"

The store also honed niches as a book club sponsor and a go-to spot for authors. David Sedaris, for example, now requests to stop at Left Bank on his book tours, and Leibman estimates about a quarter of the store's business is generated by author appearances.

"We love them," says Leibman of the visits, which have included inventor Buckminster Fuller, Hillary Clinton and Toni Morrison. "That part has just been a thrill."

Kleindeinst also lights up when she reflects on the great minds that have passed through the store. When civil-rights activist Cornel West came in the mid-'90s, she remembers a huge, only-in-St. Louis thunderstorm blowing up just as he began speaking. The storm raged through West's entire talk until he said, 'OK, I think I'm done.' With that, everything outside stopped. Kleindeinst says it was too uncanny to be a coincidence.

"We got thank you notes from people for that event," she says.

The loyal fan base wasn't making up for the lost sales to Amazon and general merchandise stores such as WalMart, however, and last year the store opened a second location in an attempt to stay afloat.

After being approached by numerous developers, the store agreed to work with Craig Heller on setting up shop downtown. Heller has invested in the downtown store as a partner for three years. After three years, everyone will revisit the project and the store hopes to have the capital to buy the business.

"You'd have to be an idiot not to look at it a second time," says Kleindienst. Additionally, the owners clicked with Heller's vision for downtown.

"He works here, his kids go to school here, he wants this neighborhood," says Kleindienst.

The downtown store has a decidedly modern feel as compared to the homey intimacy of the Central West End location. Floor to ceiling windows, exposed ductwork, and cement flooring contribute to the contemporary vibe. Much of the furniture has been repurposed: barrister chairs from Bryan Cave, a table Kleindeinst went "Dumpster-diving" for and then repainted, office chairs from Express Scripts.

"I like the zero-budget method," she says.

And, of course, the cat. Left Bank has a long, rich tradition of found cats. First Captain Nemo, who was pulled from a Forest Park pond, then Jamaica, named after author Jamaica Kincaid, and finally Spike, the very personable current Central West End black cat. Keeping with tradition, Downtown's newest addition, a silver tabby named Olive, was picked up by Steele's sister from under a truck in Effingham, Ill.

According to expert testimony by Kleindeinst, Steele, and bookseller Lauren Keefer, Olive has been having the time of her young life romping around the store. On this journalist's visit, however, she lies in the feline version of the fetal position fast asleep under Kleindeinst's office desk.

"She gets so overstimulated," she says.

Despite being the only downtown bookstore, getting the word out and attracting customers has posed yet another uphill climb -- especially given the recession. Just this month, the store was forced to layoff or cut back the hours of several employees.

"Sales in general are way down," says Kleindienst. "You can only juggle smoke and mirrors for so long."

When she pauses to entertain the thought of bookstores like her own essentially being strangled out of business by Amazon and multi-purpose chains like Walmart, it's evident that the possibility threatens more than just her livelihood.

"Imagine a world where all the indie booksellers give up because it's too damn hard," she says. "It's bad enough that health care is profit-based; imagine if ideas were."

And what about the Internet and its seemingly endless offering of information from every possible sociopolitical angle?

Kleindeinst reflects on a recent Google search she did on the Rwandan genocide.

"Very little came up that was useful," she says. "The history of the genocide book I'm reading [Philip Gourevitch's "We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families"] is fully researched and partially eye-witness. It is deeply thoughtful. Nothing on Google came up with something close."

She pauses, looks out towards the airy, light-filled entrance of the downtown location and continues. "The internet is great for 'What's the definition of this word' or 'Who won the World Series in 1952.' If you want to live in a sound bite world, it's a great place to stay."

For Steele, it's the atmosphere of Left Bank that's irreplaceable. "It's the squeaky door," he says. "It's imperfect and scratched and has charm and personality and character. The box stores have a really shallow arrangement of a lot of things. You come here and get a deep arrangement of the most important things."

So has the bookstore lived up to its goal of being a Mecca of independent thought? "At times it's happened," said Leibman. "At times I've felt we were a killer bookstore. ... Sometimes the economic reality is a stumbling block, but the passion for it is there."

Anna Vitale is a freelance writer in St. Louis.

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