Kris Kleindienst, co-owner of Left Bank Books, works out of a basement office filled with lived-in clutter. She orders the books she sells, manages 22 employees, and contends with the many routine demands of running two stores– one in the Central West End, and a newly opened location downtown. Today when the cameras arrive she asks for a few extra minutes, which she uses to eat a sandwich, talk to an employee, and work on her laptop, all at the same time. “There’s a lot of energy required and stamina in this job … it’s not the sort of old-fashioned library fantasy that people have of working in a bookstore. You don’t just sit and sip tea and talk books with whoever comes in.” Sometimes, the pace can be exhausting. “I was always saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to back out, I only want to work part-time, I’m going to write’ … and then I just never did. So I do still firmly believe, in my optimistic way, that there will be a time when I’m not so immersed in the day-to-day operation. We’ll see.” This year will be her 40th at Left Bank.
“I feel like if I’m going to own my own store … and devote my life to it and not really reap huge financial rewards, I should be able to live with myself when I go home,” she says. As an independent and locally-owned bookstore, Left Bank’s customers are reinvesting the money they spend back into their community. “We have a face, they have a face, they’re our friends, they’re our neighbors, and we are accountable to them.” When she purchases books for the store, she consciously seeks to stock the shelves with titles that represent St. Louis’ “underserved populations,” in her words. In the basement of Left Bank, tall, densely packed wooden bookshelves announce their contents on handmade signs, framed in bright construction paper. One row ranges from metaphysics to anthropology, LGBT literature, and women’s studies.
Left Bank was assembled in 1969 by a collective of graduate students from Washington University, all of whom were activists involved in anti-war causes, civil rights, the women’s movement, and more. “It was a very tumultuous time,” Kleindienst remembers. That year, the Stonewall riots jump-started LGBT activism, the bloodshed of the Vietnam War was sparking outrage across the country, and the first men walked on the Moon. “In the late 60’s and early 70’s, so much was going on so fast. There was just this amazing renaissance.”
Kleindienst was a teenager at the time. “I was kind of coming of age in high school,” she says. “Some of it was growing up in this Dick and Jane world of, ‘Just mind the rules and everything will be ok, and everybody’s good, and your government’s good, and it’s all good’– and then, boom. It was really not good, you know? These people are not all good, and you have to think critically.” As Kleindienst became especially passionate about LGBT issues and the women’s movement, she began participating regularly in local activism. “I think I have a bossy personality. When I was 6, I was telling my brothers what to do and I had a big sense of what was right and wrong, and just kind of charged forward all my life.” In high school she became involved in anti-war protests, and met some of the WashU students who founded Left Bank. In 1974, she was hired as one of their first employees. “I needed a job,” she says. “And I knew the store, I knew the people.”
From the beginning, Left Bank provided a valuable alternative voice in St. Louis. “The newspapers were very conservative– there was a lot of stuff that wasn’t getting into print except in underground sources,” she remembers. In addition to working as a bookseller at Left Bank, she wrote a column for a newspaper that served the LGBT community. It was one of several smaller, specialized publications launched in St. Louis at the time. “I know in the gay community that was huge, because people were so isolated and stuff was so just squelched.” She would continue to contribute to it for 20 years. “I have always thought of myself as a writer,” she says. “I felt my most effective work was as a writer.”
However, Left Bank’s original founders began abandoning Left Bank as they completed their degrees at WashU and moved away from St. Louis. “It was a poor little under-resourced progressive store,” she remembers. In 1977, Kleindienst and a fellow bookseller decided to buy out the interim owners, which also meant taking on all the debts Left Bank had accumulated– including a loan from the previous owner’s parents. Over time, they successfully paid back all the store’s debts. “I can’t imagine being anywhere else, and I– I think I might be unemployable anywhere else.”
For the past 11 years, she has shared the commitment of running Left Bank. “I co-own the store with my partner … who I live with, we’re also partners,” she says. Together, they’ve had to learn to draw boundaries. “We go home and the meeting extends into everything. So, you know, we just have to stop and say, ‘Ok, we’re going to stop talking about this and do something else.’” Still, Kleindienst struggles at times to balance her work and her life outside of Left Bank. “I think I get about a D- on that,” she reflects. “I’ve been working a lot. I’m probably working more now than I ever have, and I am almost 61 years old … this is the kind of job that is never really done.”
More than a decade ago, Kleindienst found herself in charge of organizing an impromptu appearance by New Age healer and writer Deepak Chopra in the aftermath of September 11th. “Everybody was just shocked and traumatized and searching for meaning, context, reassurance, community,” she remembers. Planes were grounded across the country, and Chopra happened to be stranded in Chicago during a book tour. He decided to drive home, and called Kleindienst to ask if he could stop by Left Bank to give a talk about coping with the recent tragedy. “And we’re like, ‘Of course.’ But this was Friday. There was no Facebook, there was no 10,000 person email mailing list, none of that.”
She started making phone calls. The next day, she found herself among a crowd of 200 friends, regular customers, and first-time visitors who came in from the tree-lined streets of the Central West End and packed the store, squeezing themselves in between tables of books as Chopra spoke. Kleindienst struggles to put the experience into words. “I mean, he was just, it was really kind of– it was a spiritual gathering … I felt like it made a lot of sense why independent bookstores are important,” she says. “That day, it made a lot of sense.”
Around that time, she searched books in print for the word “Afghanistan.” Her voice trails off mid-sentence. “That’s what people needed.” She felt an immediate obligation to provide a perspective beyond the comments section of a breaking news website like CNN. “Because a book versus someone just gets online and rants for 20 minutes– who are you going to trust here? Whose research– this journalist who spent 5 years in Afghanistan, living, working and researching, or someone who just thinks it’s all bad?”
She is confident that books will continue to be irreplaceable. “In 40 years– it will still exist. It will. And it wasn’t broken, so don’t fix it … it was something that humanity got right.” Then, she begins to speculate. “Hopefully it’ll be printed on hemp or something renewable … books are actually ecologically, even on tree paper, much greener overall than e-books. If you ever do any investigation of what it takes to put e-readers, cell phones, every form of electronic device into being– it’s this toxic ring of hell that these third world countries and people are in,” she says. “We have to get more clever.” After she finishes speaking, she accidentally looks straight into the camera, then catches herself and laughs.
“I’m sorry, I keep wanting to look over here because it’s rude of me not to. I have to retrain myself now for retail,” she says. As she heads back to her office, two men eagerly trade recommendations in front of the science fiction section while Spike, the cat who lives at Left Bank now, walks past a bottom shelf. He’s the third stray cat to be adopted by the store– by a strange coincidence, all three have been black and long-haired. Across the room another man reads quietly, almost hidden in between packed bookshelves. An illustrated guidebook to birds is sticking out of a nearby shelf the wrong way, as if someone had tilted it to remember its place. “You have this big range,” Kleindienst says. “Our older customers who appreciate the consistency of the store, but new people who can come in and feel like ‘Yeah, this is my place too.’”
For more information about Kris Kleindienst or Left Bank Books, visit left-bank.com