Literary lifeline

At Left Bank Books, reading is personal

Kris Kleindienst is co-founder of Left Bank Books, a St. Louis literary institution. Photo by Joe Angeles, design by Monica Duwel

Kris Kleindienst, AB ’79, co-owner of Left Bank Books, a 50-year-old St. Louis bookstore, believes reading helps us understand ourselves within the world. And in an era of social unrest and a pandemic that has claimed more than 200,000 lives, Left Bank Books is increasingly a haven for its customers, offering knowledge, reassurance and escape.

Left Bank Books was founded in 1969 by a collective of WashU grad students who were active in the antiwar and civil rights movements. The store offered a broader spectrum of literature than that of mainstream bookstores, focusing on social issues alongside art and culture.

While Kleindienst didn’t join Left Bank until its fifth year, she already knew the founders through friends and family connected to WashU. “I was the first employee really,” Kleindienst says.

When she first began working at Left Bank, very few women’s studies and LGBT books were on the shelves. That soon changed.

“Being the little upstart I was, I started the sections for the store and grew them,” she says. Kleindienst can’t count how many LGBT people have said the store is a lifeline, a rite of passage.

“We’re a safe space,” she says. “For a lot of gay people, especially back when it was very hard to be out in any way, just to stand in that section and take a book off the shelf was a huge step. And then [for someone] to bring it to the counter, stand face-to-face with a stranger to buy it, and hear the person at the counter say, ‘Oh, that’s a good book’ was important. That may seem like something we all take for granted today, but that was a big thing for a lot of people then, and sometimes it still is.”

While working at the store, Kleindienst completed her WashU degree, studying English and witnessing the early stages of the university’s women’s studies program. “WashU gave me a wonderful place to talk to smart people about literature and ideas,” she says. Not long before graduating, Kleindienst became one of Left Bank’s owners. Since then, she’s watched many store employees go on to become successful writers and industry leaders.

Throughout its 50-year history, Left Bank Books has overcome many challenges. But Kleindienst admits the coronavirus pandemic poses the greatest trial yet.

“It’s the most surreal time of all our lives, and running a retail business, any retail store, right now is terrifying,” says Kleindienst, who has pivoted her business model from 5% online to 100%. The store now offers curbside pickup and same-day delivery, and it continues hosting a wide variety of virtual events.

“What we offer is something essential. People need a deeper understanding of what’s going on, and books are the best way to get that. They need knowledge, and that’s our business. We trade in ideas.”

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