How my visit to Left Bank Books in St. Louis connected me to the soul of a city.
Updated: Jun 6, 2019
Left Bank Books is the oldest independent, full-line bookstore in the city, contributing to the city's culture for 50 years.
When Crosby and I decided we were driving my little Honda from Chicago to San Diego, the first thing we (loosely) planned was which route to take. The second thing we planned, of course, was which indie businesses to visit along that route. While we couldn't make it to everything on my long wishlist, we did visit more amazing indie places than I could've hoped for on such a quick trip. And our first stop was in St. Louis, at Left Bank Books, located in the Central West End neighborhood.
It's very fitting that the history of these stores and the people who own and manage them intrigue me most--I want a bookstore with a good story! On Left Bank's website, they have a very thorough about section that explains who they are, what they care about, and how they came to be. They say they are the oldest and largest independent, full-line bookstore in St. Louis, and host more than 300 events a year. These stats alone made it easy for me to add it to my "must visit" list.
When we arrived, we were a little tired and dazed from a full day of driving, but the store brought color and life to an otherwise dreary and cold evening. The staff was setting up for an author event in the back. Instead of feeling out of place or like we might be disrupting the event by wandering around, we were truly able to relax for the first time that day.
The bookstore has two floors, with used books located in the lower level. There are two things I love about this. First, I appreciate a bookstore that sells both used and new. For anyone who is on a budget but who loves books and wants to support their local indie bookstore, this gives them an opportunity to show their support. Second, I will always love bookstores with staircases. They make me feel like a little kid again, and like I'm going to a secret and magical place.
Originally opened by a group of Washington University graduate students, the store is now co-owned by Jarek Steele and Kris Kleindienst. I sent an email to them and let them know how much I enjoyed my visit, and asked them a few questions about their store and the role they play in the community. The responses I received reinforced why I love independent businesses and creators, and why I made indieland as a way to celebrate them.
When asked what Left Bank Books brings to the community that no other store, big box retailer, or online store can, co-owner Jarek Steele says he has seen Left Bank Books transform people, both the customers and the people who work there. "It's a hybrid of social justice work and for-profit bookstore that doesn't work on paper but through a gentle alchemy works in practice," he writes. "I've watched people transition from one gender to another while working here, and have done so myself. I have watched kids grow up and mature from the kids' section into the rest of the store. I've watched angry protests surround this place and its participants hold this space sacred and separate from the city they were protesting. It is a dynamic give and take, the relationship between us and our community. What we bring to the city is fed by what our city brings to us. We are part of its DNA as it is part of ours. No big box or online retailer can ever do that. They can never be us."
The store also gives back to its community regularly and helps to raise funds for local organizations. One very recent example: They closed on June 3rd for inventory but encouraged customers to shop online, where 15% of sales were donated to the local Planned Parenthood.
With each store I write about and visit from this point forward, I will be asking the owners what role they think indie businesses and creators play in their communities. Jarek's response made me smile: "We are the keepers of the soul of the city."
While our time in St. Louis was brief, visiting Left Bank Books gave me a snapshot of the culture and the people. The store holds within its walls not just the many wonderful stories that books give us access to, but also the stories of the people who work there and the many who walk through its doors. The store is a space where those employees and customers come to connect, learn, and grow, making it an integral part of their own personal stories and evolution. I think that was what made me feel warm and welcome that evening. You could say I got a glimpse of the city's soul.
Stay tuned for more posts on our journey. Have you ever visited Left Bank Books, or had this same feeling when visiting one of your local independent bookstores? Share it with us in the comments below.