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Kris' Corner





Updated: 2012-04-15T19:13:56.082-05:00

 



Yes We Can

2008-11-28T14:19:37.630-06:00

The people have spoken. We campaigned hard and fast during October, marching through perhaps the worst international economic collapse ever. We asked our Friends for money; we promised to be the best we can be, to serve the people, to assemble a visiting "team" of remarkable thinkers and writers who will challenge, inspire and entertain, and to expand our services to a downtown location. We sent out emails asking you to become Friends of Left Bank Books. We invited old Friends to re-up more generously. A couple of weeks after the stock market collapsed, we held a fundraiser with the generous help of our landlord, Peter Rothschild, and our friends at Duff's. The results? Nearly one hundred of you responded. We raised almost $14,000!This vote of confidence was much more than a "bailout" - although it certainly secured our immediate future - it was a huge boost to our battle-sore spirits. Not only did folks join the Friends at generous levels, other folks did what they could by actually spending some portion of their book budgets at Left Bank Books. You have no idea how important that small act is.Earlier this year we wondered if we could or should keep going. Thanks to your amazing response we don't wonder if we can, now we say, "Yes we can!" This feels historical. We're looking to the future, daring to hope for something better. These numbers shatter the Borders-effect. We see a bright time in literary St. Louis - a St. Louis that not only sees the value in an independent bookstore - and it deserves an independent bookstore. It demands an independent bookstore! You shall have one.To be sure, it didn't look likely. Retail sales in October were the worst in 39 years, according to the ICSC-Goldman-Sachs index. Major retailers reported declines of 10 percent or more. The giant sucking sound in the economy has people preparing for or already in the middle of the worst. What's odd about this is that while October certainly wasn't our best month ever, it wasn't our worst month, either. In fact, thanks to you, our gross income was slightly above last October! If you adjust for the Friends memberships, our book sales were actually down about 11 percent, echoing the national figures. But since we are booksellers, we consider this business as usual. We're used to tough times. We know how to hold our breath.We have no way of knowing what the future brings. We prepare to open our downtown store in cooperation with developer Craig Heller. We continue to make upgrades to our Central West End location so that we can serve 21st century customers in 21st century ways. We will not ask the president-elect to save us from our profligate ways, mostly because our ways have never been profligate, but also because, as independent booksellers and operators of a small business on Main Street America, that's simply not what we do. The vertebrae of this country's economic stability are its small businesses.But even though we don't know what the future brings, we are willing to take the risk. You've asked us to. Thank you, readers, book buyers, and cultural citizens of St. Louis, for voting for Left Bank Books. We don't take your vote lightly. This next year will not be easy and it will take all of us. We know that cash is short and times are uncertain. We also know that there are some dozen chain bookstores in the metro area, and a sizeable number of boxes with the A-word on them being delivered to St. Louis doorsteps. They're opening their doors and selling millions of dollars of books to St. Louisans. Then they're taking the profits out of town. All we ask is that the next time you do have a few dollars to spend on books, you come to us or any other locally-owned bookstore. That's all. Even a fraction of a percent of the sales going to those chain stores and that online usurper of local economies would make a huge difference. A sustainable difference.A final note of hope: the 44th president of the United States is not only a voracious reader, he's a member of the 57th Street Books/Seminary Co-op Bookstore i[...]



An Open Letter to Booklovers

2008-08-29T13:02:30.034-05:00

Kris KleindienstThe rumors are true. Left Bank Books is opening a bookstore downtown. It will be a second location, which is backed in full by downtown developer Craig Heller. Without his backing, a downtown Left Bank Books would not have happened. It’s a 3-year agreement and if things go well, we will purchase the store from Craig. We will continue to operate our main store in the Central West End. Both stores will carry similar inventories and offer author events. We are busily at work making arrangements for the downtown store, which we hope to open by the end of November.The downtown store is part of a long-term strategy to re-invigorate Left Bank Books, which has suffered not only the downturn in the economy that affects everyone, but has had to battle the unequal playing field created by Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.com. (How that playing field is unequal is an article in itself.) If even a tiny percent of St. Louisans who buy books anywhere else would buy them through Left Bank Books instead, the future of our store would be secured. It’s not about shelling out more, it’s about changing existing spending habits.As it now stands, we are anything but secure. We struggle constantly with a cash flow that depends largely on smoke and mirrors. As the cost of doing business rises and sales do not, Left Bank workers—and here I must ask you to picture your favorite Left Banker—live on an unworkably low wage. Owners do as well. Burnout is a constant danger. It becomes harder and harder to stock the store as we envision it, and harder, therefore, to serve the community we love.But we are also absolutely committed to keeping Left Bank Books open and thriving. To that end, we are unfolding our bold plan to build a sustainable future for Left Bank Books. The downtown store is only a part of our plan. A sustainable Left Bank Books begins in the Central West End. As we enter our 40th year and contemplate the un-viability of doing business as usual, the first phase of our bold new plan involved you. We are sending out a plea to our friends, neighbors and customers to support our store. Here are seven things you can do that won’t cost you anything. (And one that will.)1. Buy books from Left Bank BooksWe are not asking you to buy more books than you already do. We are asking you to buy them from Left Bank Books.2. St. Louis out of Amazon.comClick through to http://www.left-bank.com/ instead of Amazon. Not only would you be supporting Left Bank Books, you’d be supporting your local tax base as well. No dollar spent on Amazon ever gets recycled into your police, schools, roads, local government, public services, etc. And when is the last time you attended an author event sponsored by Amazon?3. Friends don’t let friends shop at chain stores.The next time you hear someone say they’re headed to Barnes & Noble, or they’ll “get it on Amazon”, why not suggest Left Bank instead? Dare to be influential. It works! Remind them that the next time they want to see Chuck Palahniuk or Anne Lamott or even Hillary Clinton, they might not want to drive to Chicago to do so.4. Give Left Bank gift certificates as giftsActually they are Booksense gift certificates, soon to be Indiebound gift certificates, and they’re redeemable at over a thousand independent bookstores nationwide. They are also redeemable on our website. http://www.left-bank.com/5. Give your corporate and institutional book business to Left Bank BooksWe have very competitive discounts, offer free delivery, and personal service. Plus your organization can feel good about supporting a locally-owned store. kris@left-bank.com6. Link your website to ours and make money!Affiliate your website with ours and earn money on every purchase made via click-throughs from your site to ours. Schools and not-for-profits don’t have to send your purchases out of state. You’ll earn a higher percent than you will from that other place, too. http://www.left-bank.com/, click on the affiliate link.7. Join or renew your membership in the Fri[...]



A Man Walks into a Bookstore

2008-07-29T12:15:16.492-05:00

by Kris KleindienstLarry McMurtry started collecting books in 1942 at age 6, when a cousin who was going off to war gave him his library of 19 boys’ adventure stories. McMurtry, who lived on a book-free ranch in Texas, was stunned to learn that there could be made up stories. He re-read his library numerous times, and by the time he was a senior in high school, his passion for books was a full-blow disorder. Today, most know McMurtry as the author of nearly 40 novels and numerous screenplays including Terms of Endearment, The Last Picture Show, and Lonesome Dove, and the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain. But his pride and joy is his used and antiquarian bookstore, Booked Up, which contains over 400,000 volumes housed in a several buildings in downtown Archer City, Texas. Perhaps if his cousin had given him only one book instead of a library, he would have kept his bookstore to a one-building operation, but I doubt it. McMurtry details his lifelong obsession in Books: A Memoir, published this July. The tiny chapters read more like the kind of short, frequently interrupted conversations one has say, behind the counter of a bookstore. They are nearly blog-like, which would seem an anathema to McMurtry. To this day, he has refrained from putting any part of his vast collection online. He remains a thoroughly old-world collector and bookseller.Because of that, his memories of books and book people are richly anecdotal stories about the highly eccentric substrata of people for whom particular words on particular pieces of paper are imbued with an almost spiritual power, not unlike relics in the Church. McMurtry’s milieu includes gum-shoe book scouts who think nothing of spending hours sifting through yard-sale detritus for pristine copies of vintage American pulp fiction or rare first editions. They could be collectors enhancing their own libraries, or they could be dealers, turning their finds into profit. It also includes the likes of Dorman David, the son of a wealthy Texas rancher who, in the sixties, used his inheritance to design a mouth-watering bookshop complete with humidor and set about acquiring books from major dealers in Texana and Americana. It seems he bought more like a collector and less like a dealer, leaving very little room for profit and soon “flamed out”, leaving his mother and sister, who were ill-equipped for the task, to dispose of his treasures. McMurtry lent them a hand and remains friends with the mother, now in her nineties. One of my favorites in McMurtry’s rich pantheon of book people is the scout known for his habit of scooting along the floor of a bookstore on his bottom to study the lower shelves. This man never left a bookstore with a clean behind, but he also discovered a number of treasures overlooked by scouts with a more upright posture. One could say he stooped to conquer. My favorite bookstore of the hundreds McMurtry has scouted, worked in, partially or wholly-owned, or simply bought out, was housed behind the San Francisco Chronicle where the floor-to-ceiling shelves were so high customers were given binoculars to browse. Another of those hundreds of bookstores McMurtry walked into over his 50 year career as a bookman was Left Bank Books where, in 1994, he and his co-author Diana Ossana read from their novel, Pretty Boy Floyd. There were a polite number of people in attendance and they bought a polite number of books. The surprise of the evening came when the reading was over and McMurtry and Ossana fell upon our poetry section with a fervency I had never experienced in a customer before. Seven hundred dollars later, they left, only to return the next morning and do it again. It occurred to me then, that we might actually be running a world class bookstore. We have kept an infrequent contact with McMurtry since then, trading in the odd first edition here and there. I hadn’t expected to find our store mentioned in his memories, but was surprised to find another St. Louis sto[...]



Bookselling - An Open but Committed Relationship

2008-06-23T17:01:05.463-05:00

With this article we formally welcome my life-partner Jarek Steele as Left Bank’s newest partner in books, bookselling and bookpeople. He’s already logged 6 ½ years in the store so he’s no stranger to many of you, but we thought it was time he came out as a managing partner. –Kris KleindienstWhen I stood to introduce David Sedaris on June 17, I faced a bookstore full of people who had paid at least $35 to support our store in addition to buying Sedaris’s new book. Outside, 300 more people sat on the curbs and in the street, in lawn chairs and on blankets, sharing wine and food, lounging with their families, friends and pets just to hear this man read from his book. To laugh with people. It occurred to me how remarkable that is – that literature and the community it builds are powerful enough to stop traffic in the city of St. Louis.On the Saturday after September 11, 2001, about six months before I came to work here, I locked myself in a hotel room in Ohio where I had been stranded and cried for two days, alone with the images on the television. That same weekend, Deepak Chopra rented a car in Chicago and planned to drive to the next destination on his author tour. It didn’t include St. Louis, but he offered to stop by the store for a visit on his way. This was before LBB had e-blasts and large mailing lists, so with less than 24 hours notice, Kris made phone calls to news organizations and emailed the few folks we had on our lists. What happened next was unbelievable. People flocked to the corner of Euclid and McPherson and packed themselves into our store. They stood touching each other wall-to-wall all the way out the door as Deepak led them in guided meditation. Hundreds of people, standing together, healing together. That is the power of the community and ideas surrounding this store. It was something I didn’t even know I was missing until I found it here the next year.As any alumni of Left Bank Books can tell you, it doesn’t take long for the dream of a bookstore to wear thin and the fiscal reality to set in. My first year here, I lived in Illinois and took two busses and the Metrolink to the BJC station and walked the rest of the way. As the reality set in and I realized that the struggle of this little business wasn’t some bump in the road, it was the whole unpaved stretch, I got frustrated. Kris said, “Jay, there are sprinters and marathon runners in this business. You just have to know who is who and which one you are.” It was the truest and most valuable thing she’s said to me about Left Bank. In the city of St. Louis, in the field of bookselling, in the cultural scene, LBB is a marathon runner. We don’t necessarily get off the starting line first, or run as fast, but we endure. We have endured, And we’ve grown, thanks to the love and support of readers in St. Louis. We are still writing this story.As the newest, youngest co-owner at Left Bank Books, our customers haven’t really gotten to know me and, to be honest; I haven’t had the years of experience Kris and Barry have had to know myself within the context of the store. I’ve worked only six of the thirty-nine years we’ve been open. I stare at the dormant alphabet of my ergonomically correct keyboard as I undertake to write this article and I realize I don’t yet know what my dormant alphabet will spell for Left Bank Books.The store here on Euclid and McPherson has housed the footsteps of all its staff, customers and writers. Authors ranging from Sonny Barger to Jimmy Carter have walked among our shelves. All of these footprints tap out the fantastic and unlikely story of this store. They make what we have here worth more than just some books on some shelves and a cash register.What I hope to add to the mix is another vote of confidence, another pledge to keep this community alive. I’m adding my hope for this city and an invitation to all of its citizens to be a part of the Left Bank community and help it thrive. It’s good for all of [...]



Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History

2008-06-01T22:14:57.655-05:00

(headline attributed to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich)by Kris Kleindienst, Co-OwnerI have been inspired by Phillis Schlafly to write this article. Most of you will realize how unlikely this source of inspiration is: Phillis Schlafly is the 83-year-old uber-right wing founder of the Eagle Forum. She dedicated her early years of activism to furthering Senator McCarthy's anti-communist crusade, but she really hit her stride in the 70s when she discovered that preventing equal rights for women was a more timeless cause. Political systems come and go, but there iwll always be women to oppress. So why in the world would a co-owner of St. Louis' progressive bookstore be inspired to invoke Ann Coulter's fairy god-mother?We have a lot in common, actually. For one thing, Schlafly is a graduate of Washington University, as are most of Left Bank Books' co-founders, my mother, and me. All of us are activists, having co-founded or directed various projects, including this bookstore, where the "women's" section is not for books on diet, fashion and relationship. While Schlafly led the charge to defeat ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 70s, my mother was working in Washington, D.C. as the president of Northern Virginia N.O.W. to secure its passage. Too bad Schlafly won.Phyllis Schlafly was busy in the late 70s. She was in law school at Wash. U., graduating in 1979, the same weekend I received my bachelor's degree in Women's Studies. Our names are in the same commencement materials. I thought it was very inspiring at the time that she could be vociferously arguing for women to stay in the home while she pursued a professional career. Rumor around campus back then was that she was so busy on her anti-ERA campaign, that she had hired help to get through all her law school homework. I'm not saying she actually cheated, I'm just saying. I'm pretty sure she wasn't doing her own housework.The reason she inspires me today is that our alma mater has seen fit to issue her an honorary degree. Washington University has always been forward-thinking on the issue of women's rights. Its law school was one of the first in the country to admit women. Even Harvard University, where Schlafly earned a masters degree in 1945, refused to admit women to its law school until 1950. Phoebe Wilson Couzins was Wash. U.'s first female graduate in 1870 and, like Schlafly, Couzins had women's rights in mind. She co-founded the National Women's Suffrage Association with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.Coincidentally, I'm pretty sure I was one of the first people to graduate from Washington University with a degree in Women's Studies, about a hundred short years after Couzins co-founded the NWSA. (Ok, you couldn't major in women's studies, but it could be your second major, kind of like working full-time, caring for the kids, and going to school.)The point is, here's Phyllis Schlafly, getting another degree from Washington University (her first was a bachelor's in 1944, one year before her master's from Harvard), one she didn't even have to pay for, while powerful women's rights advocates like my mother (who, incidentally, also wrote implementation guidelines for Title IX and authored a landmark government study on families of military personel), hacve gone to their graves without so much as a nod. The anti-war activism of Left Bank co-founders has made law book history, and their collective effort to provide a progressive voice in the founding of Left Bank Books still stands today, albeit beaten about the kneecaps with the lead pipes of late-capitalism. The surviving founders all do amazing community work and activism in their respective communities. One of them, Anita Diamant, even wrote a bestselling novel.But do any of us get an honorary degree? No! Instead, we get repeated requests for donations from a school with one of the healthiest endowments in the country. Personally, I would happily settle for a ten[...]



That Chance Element of Surprise: Get Your Opinion In Print - Por Favor!

2007-06-25T17:25:37.636-05:00

by Tanya Mignon ParkerTanya Parker has a place on the green employee payroll sheet of Left Bank Books. She is Francophone by association, with family in South Africa, Rwanda, Mali, Chad, Paris and Bruxelles – depending on where the war is, and how quickly you can flee.Just over a year ago, I met Fabrice Rozie, the literary attachéto the French embassy, at his office on Fifth Ave in NewYork. It is a marble-encased shrine opposite the MetropolitanMuseum of Art, something Guy de Maupassant would laughabout – the foyer dominated by a nude, white marble Greco-Roman sculpture surrounded by marbled floors and walls.On a small brass plaque, the building acknowledges itself asthe cultural division of the French Embassy. (I imagineMaupassant would see the sculpture moving as others see itinert).I’m no stranger to the French. I learned the lingo early on inZimbabwe from Congo/Belgian/Parisian/Francophonecousins who first taught me the cuss words, then the songs,then the prayers and then later, my aunt and uncle intervenedand ameliorated the situation by sending me to properGrammar school.At the embassy, I knew I would be meeting a diplomat andhad conjured an image of a staid, inert bespectacled man in acollar. Rozie is anything but. He is bouncing off the walls,dressed in jeans and a t-shirt with a youthful grin, tennisshoes, and eyes full of humor, intelligence, mischief andempathy. The next time I saw him in St. Louis, he waswearing a mismatched suit and a hideous bowtie, anidiosyncratic nod to any Francophile who took him or herselftoo seriously. Behind this impressive homme de lettres is aprofessor, play-write, and more recently, co-editor of a newbook, As You Were Saying: American Writers Respond toTheir French Contemporaries.What Rozie imagined for As You Were Saying was simplebut brilliant: Let’s get over the myths of French elitism andthe “Ugly American” and focus on ideas we would all like toexplore because of our shared and brittle humanity. Let theFrench writer begin a story and leave the American writerwith the job of finishing it!Rozie assembled well-respected French and Americanwriters and translators who took on the challenge for free.But he still needed a publisher willing to take the risk. Hefound a good home with Dalkey Archive Press, known forpublishing literature in translation. Senior editor, MartinRiker, calls Dalkey’s mission “to promote not just the [workin] translation, but also the idea of translation.” He squeezedthe project in while moving himself from Colorado and thepress from Bloomington, Illinois to Urbana, Illinois. Thebook becomes a reality this month when 15,000 copies arereleased.Some of the stories read like poetry, others force you tothink, and others leave you questioning. Marie Darrieussecqand Rick Moody write about an ugly Frenchman whoundergoes a face transplant. Camille Laurens and RobertOlen Butler examine the pain of waiting and losing. LydieSalvayre and Rikki Ducornet adapt an old French tale withcaustic wit.My personal favorite is about a Bosnian refugee, whobecause of his thick accent, is relegated to selling upscalemagazine subscriptions, (which belong in the northernsuburbs of Chicago) to a more sleazy part of town, where heencounters a drunken priest with awful dandruff and hisplayboy lover. Aleksander Hemon, who wrote the story withFrench writer Philippe Claudel, was born in Sarajevo andhas lived in Chicago since 1992. His writing regularlyappears in McSweeney’s and he now has a place in theannals of modern French writing! It doesn’t get better thanthat.In independent bookstores, surprising friendships comeabout between authors, publishers and booksellers and that isone good reason to find out exactly why a Bosnian refugeewould be so moved by his encounter with a drunken priestand his playboy lover in the sleazy part of Chicago! (It is notabout the sex, stupid) Well, it’s sort of not about the sex!The only thing missing i[...]



Look, I Can’t Hear You

2007-05-25T15:24:42.915-05:00

By Erin “Erica” Quick“…the miracle. Which is, of course,…that with these words…we manage to make sense to anyone at all.”--Lucia Perillo, “Short Course in Semiotics”I get attached to my customers. We booksellers can’t help it. We spend our days peddling books, those odd and beautiful agents of language. In fact, when it comes to our customers, nearly everything we do is about thought and communication. The intimacy involved in such transactions is sometimes startling, and almost always rewarding.Like the delightful night when one of my favorite regulars was loading up on cookbooks. When I asked her if she liked to cook, she smiled and said no, in fact she did not. This was her bedtime reading. When I looked puzzled about the contradiction, she just smiled and told me that it was like people who read porn but don’t have sex.Then there was the rather awkward time when I got busted for not having finished my staff pick. On my way to dinner, I ran into a friend of mine, and we milled a bit over what I was reading. When he saw A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters tucked in my arm and paused (“Wait a minute – isn’t that your staff pick this month?”), I knew I had breached some area of trust in the bookseller/reader relationship. (I have long since finished the book, which I loved all the way.)I have book soul-mates with whom I have made no end of discoveries, who call me just to tell me how much they are enjoying Gregory Orr or Octavia Butler. Each time they come into the store, I feel as though we are preparing a meal together, sharing food and time and a table. And we always go home sated.But one of my most unforgettable, most cantankerous, and most beloved customers was Senator Thomas Eagleton.Senator Eagleton was quite a presence. He had a big voice, a friendly smile, and an assurance about him. He was one of those customers who always knew exactly what he wanted and how he wanted it. I was rather intimidated by him, aware of his prominence in the community and his robust personality. And that’s not to mention stature – all 4’8” of me, even standing on the riser behind the counter, never quite reached eye-level with the Senator. I was so nervous every time I had to help him that I always seemed to do or say the wrong thing.Early on in my bookselling days, we had a most disagreeable encounter. As many people know, he was quite hard of hearing, which made for a slew of miscommunications. On this particular day, I got to be involved in one of those. Impatient and frustrated with me, he blew me off in a most unpleasant manner. Being new and nervous, and wanting to be of service, I continued to try to help him, which only irritated him further. In the end, I wound up walking tearfully away, hoping against hope that he would forget who I was so the whole incident would blow away and I could just go on being invisible when he came around – feminism be damned.As it happened, he never did forget. And he spent the rest of our short-lived friendship (yes, even he referred to it as such) trying to make it up to me. Even though he never got my name quite right, he always made a point to find me when he stopped in. He even haunted my days off, leaving friendly little notes. And the apologies never ended. Each visit, while often still confusing, was quite pleasant. I even came to the point of being one of the few people in the store able to decipher his handwriting – another feat in our quirky communication.The last time I saw him, I made probably my biggest bookseller blunder of all. He came in on a Saturday morning, greeted me with his usual smile, and asked me to recommend a good new history book. The man who always knew exactly what he wanted, who got frustrated with me when I was unable to understand exactly what he wanted, now wanted me to tell him what he wanted. In my nervous haste, I picked up the closet history book to me[...]



The Secret Lives of Booksellers

2007-04-26T14:43:18.119-05:00

by Ann FoxenBookseller, Multilinguist, andChildren’s Book AfficionadoAs the sun comes up over this Left Bank neighborhood, people walk their dogs and troll the local shops for the most intense cup of coffee and the flakiest croissants. The windows of the bookstore on the corner are dark, though, and only Bill is hard at work already.He’d like to be at home in his garden—he has a massive project underway, turning a neglected side yard into a series of woodland/meadow/bamboo grove/flowerbeds, all connected by a series of bridges over a meandering stream. But he’s here now, sublimating, lining up the rows ofmagazines like flowers in a garden plot, and listening to the bad news from all over the world as he does it. I think he got the idea from Candide.Here come some more of the morning’s work crew. There’s Giancarlo, who used to buy books for the American Library before he came to work with us. The librarian there told me she thought he shopped for books around the city about 18 hours a day. The cavernous rooms under the library were piled high with his acquisitions. He manages our used book collection, to the same effect sometimes, but without the caverns.I don’t know what Giancarlo reads. I’d like to know what books he has on his bedside table—or which ten books are at the top of the stacks that probably surround his bed. I do know that one day his red leather shoulder bag was lying open at the desk, and I saw a copy of Platform by that enfant terrible Houellebecq.And Thérèse and Lola. Like Giancarlo, they’re so attractive that, if they weren’t so good at what they do, you might wonder if these tall, handsome people hadn’t been hired for their looks. Thérèse is studying Spanish for her trip to the Costa del Sol. Lola studies Italian. Giancarlo studies Lola.Lola has an uncanny ability to judge books just by touching them. She’ll be shelving over in the art and photography section and you’ll hear her muttering as she pulls a book from her stack, “Bah! This isn’t photography, it’s pornography.” And you check it out (of course), and she’sright.Or she’ll say, “Oh, look at this….” And she’ll flip the book open to a drawing of a fly’s eye. And on the page below: “Begin by looking at something familiar, like this book, and ask yourself, ‘What would this look like to a fly?’…Do I see this object correctly? Does the fly see it correctly?” She flips it closed, and you see that she’s holding a copy of Karr’s Contemplating Reality: A Practitioner’s Guide to the View in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. When Lola is shelving and you hearthat “Oh!” you know you’ll be taking a book home with you that night.Lola reads absolutely everything, but everything, from Heidegger to children’s books. I wonder if Heidegger ever thought that he could count among his fans women with sparkly nose studs.And here’s Hanako. She has a big laugh that burbles up from somewhere near the center of the earth, and every other expression she uses sounds completely original and surprising. She says something and everyone laughs, and she responds to their laughter with that big old laugh and they laugh again. Hanako studies things like documentary making and film editing. She’s got dimples.I don’t often hear Hanako discussing books, but I’ve noticed what catches her eye while she’s shelving. I think the one requirement is edge. Like the Bad Dog, Bad Cat, Bad President series. Or Amy Sedaris’s I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence. Or Tobón’s Jackson HeightsChronicles: When Crossing the Border Isn’t Enough.Most of us can’t afford to live in this neighborhood or anywhere on the Left Bank really. There are some who live in student housing near the university, but most of us ride the Métro and/or the bus to get here. The one exception would be Aimée, who lives in a place she inherited f[...]



DO NOT Unplug This Phone

2007-04-02T12:30:05.120-05:00

By Jarek SteeleCo-owner, bookseller, webmaster,co-op manager, e-mail manager,bookkeeper, wielder of tapemeasures and duct tape.There is currently a questionable tomato resting in thegarbage can next to my desk. I put it there, not because Ifound my office waste basket to be the most logical placeto put discarded food items, but because, quite simply,there is no more room on my desk. The tomato traveledfrom my home roughly three days ago, but I don’t reallyrecall which day it is anymore. As the late, great JanisJoplin said, “It’s all the same day anyway.” I’m sure Krisplanned to use the tomato in a salad or layered on asandwich. She does that sometimes, packs my lunch forme and I’m forced to alternate computer keystrokes withlunchtime feeding.On top of the garbage can is a three-ring binder filled withold gift certificates we don’t use anymore, that I wanted touse for contributions. But that idea was quickly discardedbecause after spending some time on Photoshop designingnew certificates I realized that I was falling behind onposting our bills. Those are piled in my inbox directly onmy spare packet of Effexor. I use the extras as a sort ofcarrot to help me get to the bottom of my inbox every day.Lately, though, I’ve been woefully behind in the bill postingarena. Our phone system, which has served us well since1988, has seen better days. When the phone near my deskgot tangled beyond repair, my attempt to replace the cordwas thwarted by the plug that had worked its way into thedepths of the phone. Neither paperclip, nor pliers norAndrea’s screwdriving skills made a difference. Later, onthe phone to Intertel, the manufacturer of the phone, thecustomer service person asked what color we would likeour replacement handset to be. When I told her our phoneswere the color of dirt and rubberbands she laughed. Hard.After our Events Coordinator, Carrie, left to work at theCounty Library, we decided to rethink our office space.Get a new lease on life down here in the basement, er, Imean executive suites. The “dark side” got a thoroughscouring, paint job and makeover. Design on much, muchless than a dime. I peeled old networking cables and phonelines from their original spaces and fished them, duct tapedthem, and plastic tied them along the ceiling and throughthe concrete wall dividing the office bathroom and furnaceroom. I’m going to have to make extra therapyappointments to deal with the post traumatic stress fromputting my hand in that hole.We surprised everyone with the new space and I decided tofinish the upgrade to our DOS based (yeah, you read thatright) inventory system complete with dot matrix (yep, theystill exist) printers. Piece by piece, we’re working onactually having desktop computers that will simultaneouslyaccess the internet and our inventory system, and— ANDhave multiple screens! In the midst of my glee, the kindfolks from the phone company came by with their workorders to switch all of our service to the new, and hopefullycheaper, system.As I write this, I’m somewhat hurried because I still mustwork through the handwritten time sheet to do payrollwhile listening to the co-mingling of dot matrix (we stillhave it) and tape gun. After that I’ll update the staff picksand try to get home sometime tonight.Tomorrow, I’ll get up and do it all over again. After all, Ilove this place like I loved my first car, a 1970 FordTorino. I had to bungee cord the doors shut, the radio wasbroken and I had to put my foot on the gas midwaythrough a red light to get the transmission to catch on thegreen. I still wish I had that car.I heard a story about someone moving to St. Louis from alarger metropolitan area. One of the reasons he didn’tmind, he said was, “At least I know Left Bank Books isthere.”This amazing group of people here at this store has learnedan intricate bookselling dan[...]



The More Books I Know About, the Less I Know About Books: A Season in the Trenches

2007-02-27T13:29:03.936-06:00

By Kris KleindienstTwo months. Twenty publishers’ sales representatives. Two hundred (or more) publishers. Thousands of titles, perhaps as many as are already on the shelves at Left Bank Books. The month of March will add a dozen more sales reps and another hundred publishers to my “this is what I did” list for the first quarter of the year. I am buying books that will be published now through August. In June, I will start buying books to be published August through December. (Bill, my calendar counterpart, has already bought most of the 2008 calendars we will be putting out in the fall!) In between these marathon sessions of “frontlist” buying, I try to keep up with the backlist: books already published that are selling. Two months into the spring/summer buying, my head is so filled with new titles that I no longer can remember which are already out, which are coming out, and which are just jumbles of titles that I have made up in my head. If a customer asks me about a new biography of, say, H.L. Mencken, they might be thinking of something they read a in a review last fall, but to me, a new biography would be a book coming out in May. There might not even be a new biography of Mencken, but if that customer asks about it, I rustle through the title jumble in my memory and the simple power of suggestion tells me there probably is a new biography. I just can’t remember anything about it. Is it from one of forty or fifty university presses we order from? Was it just reviewed on NPR? Maybe the one I’m thinking of wasn’t about Mencken at all but about A. J. Leibling. When a computer search finally sorts this out for me, the customer is long gone, having picked up a copy of The New Yorker and a greeting card instead. I feel like the more books I know about, the less I know about books.Sitting with sales reps is a huge part of my life. I have lunch with some of them far more often than I have lunch with friends. We talk about everything: bookselling, movies, life, kids, politics, even the books we’ve read. Our relationships are odd—conducted over catalogues of books with expenses paid for by multinational corporations. Most of the reps who call on me come from out of town so when they make an appointment to see me, they’re making a travel plan as well. Now that there are almost no independent bookstores left in the area, we may be the only account some of these reps come to St. Louis to see. Mindful of this, I make an effort to be prepared for their visit, to look at catalogues ahead, check backlist sales, make sure we have room and time to meet when they come. This can take more time than their actual visit. I cringe when a rep tells me a story about the little store in Acme, South Dakota he drove 300 miles in a snowstorm to see only to be told that the person with whom he made the appointment was on vacation. I never want to be that story, although I have certainly provided fodder for other stories, I’m sure.You tend to be unguarded with someone you spend entire days with two or three times a year, often at a coffee shop or even around your own dining room table; someone upon whom you depend for your livelihood, someone who also depends upon you. Sales reps can be unintentional confessors for batty buyers who use the occasion to free associate from the titles they are discussing to vent, rant, confide, confess and otherwise commit thoughtless acts of verbal indiscretion. We buyers do this even though it is accepted wisdom in the business that if you want something known, you should tell a sales rep. Most of the industry news worth knowing comes from the sales reps and some of the juiciest gossip does as well. I feel it is better to get good gossip than to be good gossip.But I digress. I don’t do the buying in a vacuum, although som[...]



An Embarrassment of Riches

2007-01-03T13:33:24.813-06:00

Rod Clark, managing editor for Rosebud Magazine once wrote,“Some of us pick up books the way dogs pick up burrs, or asweater collects lint.” As the buyer for a bookstore, I don’tpick up books, they pick up me. Thanks to dubious advances inprinting technology, virtually every book published by a majorpublisher appears in an advanced reading copy first and, thanksto unchanged mailing list technology, nearly every one of themfinds its way to me. Advance reading copies are stackedagainst my desk at work like sandbags against an illiterateworld. I feel like the gatekeeper for the Ellis Island ofbookselling, deciding who will go and who will stay.The books I can’t shake sneak home with me where they maysit for weeks before I rediscover them. Then they are new allover, a happy surprise pile of books that spoke to me at workand would like to have a private word at home. Freed fromsandbagging duties, they now lounge around—on the coffeetable, the floor underneath my overloaded bedside stand, and,most especially, around my desk at home. If my desk at workis like an immigration office, my desk at home is like a cocktailparty for books, where they mix and regroup according tointerests, as people do. Some I’ve read and keep close like theold friends they are, others, I aspire to know but may never getpast shuffling them from pile to pile around our home office.You can tell if I’ve had the chance to read a book because itspages are freckled with spaghetti sauce.There are currently four towers of books balanced on the top ofthe shelves next to my desk at home. The two shelves below arestuffed with more, not really the “B list,” there is simply no roomto store them properly—upright and spine out—and there hasn’tbeen for years. There is no room anywhere in our house to storebooks properly. Doctor’s children are purported to receive thepoorest health care; a bookseller’s books fight spine-twistingbattles to remain intact. Since my desk at home is in a room withwindows on three sides, the books about birds and trees areclosest to me. There is an ancient copy of Trees of NorthAmerica; All the Birds of North America; What’s That Bird?(for my 9-year-old son); The American Horticultural SocietyPlants for Every Season, and three armchair gems: Teachingthe Trees: Lessons form the Forest; How to be a (Bad)Birdwatcher; and In the Company of Crows and Ravens. Forsome reason, my British edition of Nell, the autobiographyof Irish feminist activist Nell McCafferty (and NualaO’Faolain’s former partner of 15 years) tops the stack.Perhaps she grew weary of the chatter in the next pile.Said pile is currently topped by an advance copy of AlisonClement’s psychological gem of a second novel, TwentyQuestions. Below it is another novel, A Seahorse Year,former “Voice Literary Supplement” editor StacyD’Erasmo’s award-winning second novel about a SanFrancisco family’s turning point year. Ron Power’sauthoritative biography, Mark Twain, follows. I worked thebooktable at Powers’ appearance here. I loved an eery newnovel, Finn, inspired by what we know of Huckleberry’sfather. I am re-reading Tom Sawyer. I even gave aBookSense recommendation to an earlier Twain biography,but I have yet to read this one. Nor have I read the copy ofMockingbird sitting below it. I wanted to read thisbiography of Harper Lee after seeing the movie In ColdBlood, but I felt I should first read In Cold Blood (which Idid), and reread To Kill a Mockingbird (which I haven’t). Ihave read James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of AliceSheldon which sits below Mockingbird. This stack also hastwo young adult novels by the award-winning writerJacqueline Woodson, whose sensibilities for her craft arespot on. I am haphazardly collecting her books.Among the gems in the rest of the boo[...]



Is It A Classic or Is It Contraband?

2006-08-31T12:17:45.726-05:00

Most of us take the First Amendment, and the rest of the Bill of Rights for that matter, for granted. If you want to read the book selected by The New York Times as the best American novel of the last 25 years, you go to your local bookstore or library for Toni Morrison’s Beloved. You don’t worry that you won’t be allowed to buy it.

But everyday, someone, somewhere in this country bans access to books. Overly concerned parents in Fayetteville, Arkansas are attempting to remove over 50 titles from public school libraries including Morrison’s Beloved. Among the other books they seek to have removed is Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, written in 1899, purportedly due to "vulgar language, sexual explicitness, or violent imagery that is gratuitously employed."

Fayetteville’s morality brigade is joined by numerous others. The American Library Association estimates that nearly 600 titles were reported challenged or banned last year in various schools and libraries across the country.

Not all attempts to restrict access to books happen in the same ways. The USA Patriot Act still allows the government to subpoena the records of private citizens at bookstores and libraries
in ways booksellers and libraries consider unconstitutional. The threat of government snooping can have a chilling effect on one’s reading choices.

Likewise, prisons are increasingly denying inmates access to books. Two prison systems returned books we had mailed to inmates on behalf of family members. In one case, the prisoner’s sister was sending him two self-help/inspirational books. The other prisoner was not allowed to receive General Principles of Constitutional Law, published in 1891. A not so quick phone inquiry in the first case revealed that the "offenders" must now place an order for books on our "order form," have it vetted by their caseworker, and, if cleared, the state of Missouri will process a check out of the offender’s account for it.

If you find any of this disturbing, then I hope you will join us in observing this year’s Banned Books Week by coming by the bookstore and making a purchase. We are donating ten percent of
our sales that week to the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri. You can even make a further donation or become a member of the ACLU while you’re here. No organization does more to defend our civil liberties, including our First Amendment rights than the ACLU.

Although we have often donated a percent of our sales at events to co-sponsoring not-for-profit organizations, Banned Books Week 2006 marks the first time we have made this level of
financial commitment. We firmly believe that a healthy ACLU is an investment in our future. We hope you’ll come by the store the week of September 25 and be as generous as you can.



The More Things Stay the Same, The More They Change

2006-07-06T13:58:40.126-05:00

July 11, 1969, a group of Washington University graduate students opened a little bookstore on Skinker just south of Delmar. The shelves were brick and board, the display tables were old wooden cable spools covered in India print cloth. The books were mostly donated by the collective members. I've heard figures of anywhere from $300 to $3,000 for the upfront capital investment; which, incidentally, until the mid-1990s, was also my budget for automobile purchases. They took the store's name from the Left Bank neighborhood of Paris, where they also took inspiration from that area's lively cultural and political life.I was a teenager then and I remember seeing Quotations from Chairman Mao prominently displayed near the door. I also remember my mother being turned away when she asked for a book of poetry by Leonard Cohen. Those were heady and confusing times. The men running the store were in danger of being drafted to fight in Vietnam. Government surveillance of private citizens was a fact of life mainstream America hadn’t fully grasped. But Left Bank Books’ customer base not only grasped it, many of them spoke out against it. The Whole Earth Catalogue, with its listing of sources for solar energy equipment and organic farming tips, was considered too controversial to be stocked by the chain bookstores in the area at that time, but was stacked near the counter at Left Bank Books.By the time I came to work at Left Bank Books in 1974, the store had moved around the corner to Delmar and Limit Ave. on the St. Louis side of the Delmar Loop. The late Larry Kogan, one of the store’s founders, and the last of the collective to actually run the store, was back in graduate school to become a psychotherapist. The store’s inventory began to mirror Larry’s broadening personal inquiries. Our complete works of Karl Marx was balanced by the complete works of Carl Jung. Larry’s interests were in concert with the broader social shifts of the time. R.D. Laing was revolutionizing treatment of the mentally ill with ideas like actually talking to them before blasting their brains with electro-shock therapy. Thomas Szasz was questioning whether some mentally ill people might actually have a point. Feminists like Phyllis Chesler, author of Women and Madness, were pointing out that mental illness might be a healthy response to the prevailing social organization. “We’re not mad, we’re angry!” was a popular feminist organizing slogan of the time. Noise about The Whole Earth Catalogue had given way to a campaign by a woman in St. Louis County to get a book called Show Me! banned. This oversized book of frank black and white photographs and minimal text graphically answered younger children’s questions about the human body. It was a healthy, shame-free tool for parents to use. Left Bank Books was the only store in the area to keep it on our shelves, which we did until the publisher stopped printing it.Thirty-seven years later, I am bemused to be hosting booksignings with folks like Mark Kurlansky, who visited our store with his book 1969: A History! I remembered my existential crisis when we decided we had to move books about the Vietnam War from political science to history. And recently I was mildly undone when a customer called about a red book by someone named something like mouseydung.Today Leonard Cohen’s latest book of poetry is stacked on the new release table. Mao’s “little red book” is perhaps more decorative than prescriptive. Some would say that the ideas driving those who wanted a store like the original Left Bank Books were unworkable and that all the old hippies grew up, got real jobs, threw away their Whole Earth Catalogues and now drive their grandchildren to soccer game[...]



Reporting Alive, Well Mostly, From BookExpo America

2006-05-29T16:54:36.466-05:00

Every year in May, I join twenty-five thousand of my closest book industry friends at BookExpo America. With over two thousand exhibits, five hundred authors in attendance and sixty seminars, BEA is the extreme event in our industry. Booksellers log dozens of miles of aisles of anticipated fall releases and bag hundreds of pounds of catalogues, books and other detritus. Searing foot pain, back injuries, carpal tunnel flare-ups and muscle cramps are common risks we booksellers are willing to take.Publishers have devised various incentives to draw attention to their books, which have to compete with about fifty thousand other books any given season. Publishers sponsor luncheons, cocktail receptions, fancy dinners and even grungy parties showcasing particular authors and titles. Just in case, they also distribute advance reading copies, imprinted pens, pencils, key chains, corkscrews and canvas bookbags to hold it all. In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that these incentives have played a critical role in what I decide to order for Left Bank Books, much like those congressional golf junkets to New Zealand for senators deciding on critical health care legislation.On my recent junket er…Book Expo visit, I lunched with ate lunch with novelist and former “Big Chill” actress Meg Tilley at Zola’s, shared cocktails at the Human Rights Campaign headquarters with up-and-coming novelist Abha Dawesar the night she won a Lambda Literary Award for Babyji, and nibbled asian-latin fusion fare at Zengo’s with Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) and Alison Bechdel, (Dykes to Watch Out For). I also enjoyed limousine service (ok, they were more like airport shuttle vans) to the Democratic Leadership Committee headquarters where I discussed election strategy with its president Bruce Reed and Representative Rahm Emmanuel. Their book, The Plan, debuts this September.Did all this wining and dining really make up my mind on these various authors? Well, no. I already read Meg Tilley’s upcoming novel and knew I would stock it. The LBB Lesbian Reading Group has already read Babyji and enjoyed it. Given that Abha Dawesar is drawing comparisons to Phillip Roth, I have no doubt we’ll do well with her June release, That Summer in Paris. I think Alison Bechdel’s brand new graphic memoir, Fun Home, is absolutely brilliant and I plan to hand sell it to everyone. As for The Plan, I hope we can entice its preeminent authors to visit our fair city come election time. I didn’t need free wine and chocolate to commit but please don’t tell the publishers. I live on a bookseller’s salary and the free vittles are appreciated.BookExpo America is more like a carnival with magicians, odd-looking people, and scam-artists than a high-minded literary event. Authors attending for their first time can easily be spotted by their bewildered, lost looks as they navigate the aisles of noise. There is something a little disjunctive about trying to find the line for the Margaret Atwood booksigning while making room for a Hostess Twinkie in a cowboy hat to pass.But though it may have some Fellini-esque apsects, BEA is most definitely not a sideshow. At least not until this year, when recent developments in internet technology threatened to shunt the world of paper and its champions to the sidelines. This year both Google and Microsoft showcased their plans to convert every book in print to digital form and make that content available on the web. Naturally everyone in the industry—publisher, bookseller and author—is alert to this possibly devastating development. Some publishers are resisting negotiations altogether while others, seeing the handwriting fading on the page, are trying to come to terms.So[...]



It Is Difficult to Get the News From Poetry

2006-03-23T14:37:31.096-06:00

by Erin Quick, Staff Member, Left Bank BooksI have enjoyed poetry since I was a young child, but it wasn't until much later that I experienced what might be called a sort of awakening. I fell madly in love with poetry when I was twenty years old, thanks to a very fine teacher, and I spent the next four years really learning how to read it. In many ways, I am still learning. I read Galway Kinnell's poems "Under the Maud Moon" and "Little Sleep's- Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight" (from The Book of Nightmares during my freshman year in college, and my life was literally transformed. April is upon us again, and it's what we here in America call National Poetry Month. Established by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, April is now designated as a month-long, national celebration of poetry, complete with a poster campaign to help "increase poetry awareness." In some ways, it's enough to make you want to roll your eyes. Don't get me wrong, I understand the importance of this kind of celebration, especially if poetry is not receiving proper attention, and I support it. But from the perspective of a poetry lover, I can't help it - the phrase "increase poetry awareness" gives me pause. Am I being asked to admit that poetry is a minority?Is poetry in danger of being entirely forgotten amidst the flash and click of our techno-cult-ure? Does poetry matter anymore? Can it matter (as Dana Gioia so famously asked)? I believe the answer is, simply, yes. We need poetry like we need food. It is nourishing, it helps us to heal and to grow, and it tastes good. It holds tremendous power, the power to transform (Mark Strand has a delightful poem about this power called "Eating Poetry" from Reasons for Moving). Poetry also tells you how to live, how to get by and get through. It serves a a reminder, and reading it regularly, like going to a service each week, is a ritual of which it is well-deserving. A poem, what one poet called "moments of being," is so distilled that it can't help but offer a clarity that other forms of literature cannot quite match. It is a direct hit, right on the nerve, and it resonates. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz makes clear culture's insistence on poetry. In his book The Bow and the Lyre he writes, "Poetry belongs to all epochs: it is man's natural form of expression. There are no peoples without poetry... Therefore, it can be said that... the existence of a society without songs, myths, or other poetic expressions is inconceivable." So why, then do we feel the need to designate (not dedicate) a National Poetry Month? Why don't Americans pay poetry attention? The glib answer: television, cell phones, computers. But that isn't entirely accurate or fair, whatever the truth may be in it. Here's the thing: our culture tends to be fast- paced and market-driven. Poetry is neither. A poem asks you to slow down, to take it one breath at a time. It moves in lines, accords to rhythms. It is not a riddle to be solved, but a song to be experienced, through language, that will ring true. And it takes time, with benefits not in dollars and cents, but in "pleasure, enlightenment, and consolation." Poetry is as diverse as the people on the planet. There truly is something for everyone. There is the beauty of Shakespeare or Blake, the drunken craziness of Sufi poets like Rumi or Hafiz,thedeceptively simple Billy Collins or Ted Kooser, the fierceness of Sonia Sanchez or Gwendolyn Brooks, the Wacky Kenneth Koch, the beats of Allen Ginsberg, the politically charged Adrienne Rich or Kenneth Patchen, the endless praise-songs of Walt Whitman, the gentle wisdom of Zen masters like Muso Soseki... The list goes on and on and on, but with a little exploration a[...]



Before the Age of Chick-Lit: A Few Words About Women's Writing

2006-02-23T15:25:53.816-06:00

This is March, which means it's Women's History Month. I'm going to tell a short, true (as I remember it) story about the history of women's literature. Back in the days when women's studies was still a dream at most universities, great literature by women was widely thought to be an oxymoron. I was an undergraduate English major at the time. The only book by a woman I can remember being assigned was Emma by Jane Austen. At an English department social gathering I went to as a freshman, I remember the chair of the department deriding the work of a contemporary woman poet who was in town to give a reading. "There will never be any great women writers," he chuckled derisively. No wonder I took a couple of years off.It turned out to be an eventful couple of years in academia. When I re-enrolled at another university, I could add women's studies to my English lit. major. Because of the double major, I got to read Emma three more times, which was ok since even pre-feminist professors consider it to be a perfect novel. But I did wonder if maybe they couldn't think of anyone else to teach. To be fair, George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte were added to my reading lists. In women's studies, we were reading Willa Cather, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, even Toni Morrison, who would later win a Nobel Prize for literature.Mostly on my own, I discovered Mary Wollstonecraft, whose Vindication of the Rights of Women predated our modern era women's movement by a couple of centuries. She died in childbirth and her daughter went on to write Frankenstein. I also fell in love with the work of Sarah Orne Jewett, whose writing was a major influence on Willa Cather, but who, like another 19th century woman, the transcendentalist Margaret Fuller (editor of The Dial and author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century) was marginalized in her own time and all but forgotten today. I devoured the Diaries of Anais Nin, immersed myself in Emma Goldman's Living My Life, and read Doris Lessing's five-volume Children of Violence series straight through. Through Adrienne Rich's work my eyes were opened to the possibilities that poetry could describe my life.As women started writing women back into history, I was thrilled to watch the women's studies section in the bookstore grow from a single shelf of Simone DeBeauvoir, Betty Freidan and Shulamith Firestone to an entire section of scholarship and memoir. Women's stories were finally being told, But my first love was novels and as a writer, I was keenly aware that the attitude of that English Department chair was far from gone. The "debate" over women's ability to produce the great American novel continues to this day. A few years ago, I read an interview with Annie Proulx, the writer whose short story inspired Brokeback Mountain. Although I've lost the citation, I'll never forget the essence of her comment: she said she didn't write about women's lives because nothing happened in them. Is her writing taken more seriously as a result? Is this attitude the modern equivalent of Mary Ann Evans writing under the name George Eliot? Thank goodness Jane Austen found women's lives interesting.Of course, women don't have to choose between women and men a primary subjects to write great stories. Nor are women capable of writing well only about women's lives. Marilynne Robinson's first novel Housekeeping is primarily about women and girls, but her second, Gilead, is a multi-generational tale of men.We have come a long way since I had to take a break in my pursuit of an education. Great writing by women writers abounds and is taken seriously enough to win major literary [...]



Lies & the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. Or Not.

2006-01-31T10:52:29.563-06:00

The publishing world was rocked this January with the revelation that bestselling memoirist James Frey, author of Oprah pick A Million Little Pieces, was less than truthful in the gritty story of his alcohol and drug addiction. Not only did he apparently compress and slightly rearrange some of the details of his life of debauchery—techniques officially allowable inmemoir—but he actually falsified the reasons for being arrested, his treatment by the police and his jail time—a technique many would view as cheating or at least reclassify the book as a work of fiction.Ironically, Frey’s factual indiscretions would probably have gone unnoticed had he not gained the attention of the person whose influence can make an unknown author’s career skyrocket literally overnight. I’m speaking of course of Oprah. Oprah departed from her current theme of readingclassics—the February pick is Night by Eli Weisel—to anoint Frey, bringing him on the show and praising him for his amazing courage and fortitude to turn his life around. Thanks to Oprah, Million Little Pieces has sold more than 2 million copies. I may be the only person who hasn’t read it.Frey says that he first intended the book to be fiction and was turned down by nearly twenty publishers before Doubleday’s prestigious publisher Nan Talese bought it. Frey says Talese said she would only publish it as a work of nonfiction. Au contraire says Nan Talese. Had she knownabout the problematic arrest scenes, she would have excised them. Meanwhile, Random House, which owns Doubleday, is officially telling people to return the book to their bookstore for a full refund if they feel, well, lied to. But “misspeakments” are so acceptable these days that no onlyhas no one returned the book to this bookstore thus far, but the book is still selling nearly 120,000 copies a week!Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, another author of what has been billed as extremely autobiographical fiction turns out to not even exist. Until recently, JT Leroy, author of Sarah, and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, was understood to be a very young writer with a very hot literary reputation among such heavyweights as authors Dennis Cooper, SharonOlds, Bruce Benderson, and Mary Gaitskill. Courtney Love and Madonna have sung his praises. Gus Van Sant makes his movies. He has purportedly been writing since the age of 16 from his own life as a cross dressing child prostitute, former drug addict and HIV positive person. His reviews are lavish in their praise, comparing him to A. M. Homes, Genet and Flannery O’Connor, to name a few. Recently he has been saying he is transgender and is under hormone therapy to transition to female.Problem is, almost no one, not these many high profile writers and musicians, not even his editor and original agent, had ever actually met Leroy in person. He quickly earned a reputation for being notoriously shy. A woman he said was Emily, who, with her husband, had taken himinto their home, most often spoke for him in public appearances. Royalty checks are sent to a corporation in Nevada. He doesn’t even give his own readings, but rather gets his well known literary friends to read for him. Eventually, he began to show up in public in a blonde wig, hat and dark glasses.Then in October, writer Stephen Beachy wrote a lengthy expose in New York Magazine, pointing the finger at 40 year old rock musician Laura Albert as the creative mind behind these “brilliant” books. It was her sister in law, Savannah Knoop, who donned the wig, glasses and hat to play Leroy in public. Leroy’s website, updated as this newsletter goes to press[...]



Another Day, Another 77 Cents

2006-01-31T10:42:26.146-06:00

January 2006When I was 18 I needed a job. My mother had moved to Boston to work as a consult-ant for corporate and municipal clients. It was 1971. I had read Sisterhood Is Powerful and Dialectics of Sex. I wanted a job that paid well, which meant I refused to look at secretarial positions. I applied to drive a delivery van for some widget company. It was the small kind of van, not unlike the minivans driven by soccer moms today. The owner refused on the spot to consider me, saying I was too weak as a female to carry his widgets around. I walked back to the car where my girlfriend was waiting. It was a VW bug and the only way it started was if you popped the clutch. It was my turn to push.A year or two later, I landed a job on the line at the Chrysler plant in Fenton. Building Dodge vans. I made about $10.00 an hour. It wasn’t easy to get that job. It took the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a major class action lawsuit against Chrysler to keep my application out of the trash. Many thanks are due to the women and men who fought those battles.By 1974, I had begun work at Left Bank Books, which I would co-own by 1978. Ironically, it would take me until the 21st century to match my men’s union-scale wages at Chrysler. When I deliver my 30-to-50 pound boxes of books, it’s in my station wagon. Owning a bookstore (or even working in one), is the surest way to keep your salary at some quaint, retro level in comparison with the rest of the workforce. The male workforce, that is. Because apparently, nothing much has changed since I was job-hunting back in the stone ages.Evelyn Murphy, author of Getting Even: Why Women Don’t Get Paid Like Men—and What to Do About it, visits our store January 10th. Among the many disturbing facts in her book is this one: in the 1960s, women earned 59 cents for every dollar earned by men. Since the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, women have managed to close the distance by a whopping 18 cents! According to statistics presented by Evelyn, 42 years after Title VII was enacted, women earn only 77 cents to every man’s dollar.I believe Evelyn Murphy when she tells me the wage gap persists. She’s an economist. She was the first woman to be elected to a statewide office—Lieutenant Governor—in Massachusetts. She is founder and president of the WAGE (Women Are Getting Even) Project, Inc. But on a more personal note, she was also a colleague and for a time, business partner of my mother’s in her consulting work. It’s great to be able to catch up with her again, if only to compare unlevel playing fields.I’ve been thinking a lot about unlevel playing fields. It strikes me that booksellers have much in common with the female labor force. Not only do women earn 77 cents on the dollar compared to men for paid labor, they contribute an incalculable amount to the health of our economy and culture.As do bookstores. As small businesses, bookstores are part of the sector of the economy responsible for the greatest amount of job creation in this country. As locally-owned businesses, we also reinvest in the local economy an estimated three times over what our mega-box store competitors contribute. We also don our superhero suits and fight to preserve Civil Rights, such as those threatened by certain provisions of the Patriot Act.As if that isn’t enough, as "Main Street" retailers, booksellers also collect and pay sales tax which finances key aspects of state and local public services. Our largest e-tail competitor— the one that wears the scarlet A—pays no sales tax to St. Louis or the stat[...]



Building Community, One Gift at a Time

2006-01-31T10:40:23.513-06:00

December 2005Once upon a time many years ago our good friend Mary Engelbreit was looking for some book-related inspiration for a picture she wanted to make. My business partner, Barry Leibman, offered her the phrase she ultimately used, "A Book Is a Present You Can Open Again and Again." That drawing, which she made for us, was reproduced as a poster that was popular nationwide with teachers and librarians for years. The original still hangs in the bookstore. The sentiment it celebrates has special resonance in this, the heaviest gift giving time of the year.After all, like it or not, the high social expectations of the season are inevitably translated through the lens of commercialism. That lens depicts a dreamy land of fluffy snow, steaming hot chocolate and lots and lots of stuff, stuff we are told will prove our love for our storybook families and friends. Some of that stuff is definitely not worth giving to anyone even once, yet we are all vulnerable to the notion that spiritual fulfillment starts with our wallets.You may be wondering why, in the middle of the busiest month of the year for our store, I would want to expose the pitfalls of consumerism. After all, Left Bank Books needs the holiday season, not to line the pockets of remote stockholders who care little for how we do it, but for ourselves—booksellers who juggle finances all year in hopes of a healthy holiday season. But we also need the holiday sales for our community—people like you who value the contribution to our city’s culture that an independent bookstore makes.That is precisely why I wish to expose the Emperor of Greed. He doesn’t live at the North Pole. He doesn’t live in St. Louis. He cares little for what you buy as long as you buy it from a giant chainstore or remote e-tailer. He gives nothing back to the community that wracked up billions of dollars on credit cards for him. He’s been given tax breaks so he won’t be supporting the schools, roads, police or fire districts whose services he uses. He buys many of his operating supplies from out of town locations rather than from your neighbor’s small business. He uses his Wall Street accountants, not a local firm. He sells you a service contract that sends you overseas for support that rarely works. But he doesn’t care, he’s done with you. As a vast, nameless entity, the Emperor of Greed is not actually accountable to you. As well, although Aunt Mabel may like the sweater from T-g-t, your good deal came at the expense of your community’s infrastructure in lost tax revenue. That $9 sweater may actually have cost you an extra $200 in this year’s property taxes. After all, somebody’s got to pay for the storm sewers.I have lived in St. Louis my whole life and been a bookseller at Left Bank Books for 32 years. Our customers are not wallets, they are our community. They are our neighbors. They have become our friends and even family over the years. We are accountable to them, to you. We pay our taxes, we vote in local elections for school boards and city councils. We have a stake in the quality of our local services, in the re-sources available for the education of our families, friends and neighbors. We love our customers. We know you struggle this time of year as we do, to make conscientious, meaningful decisions about what you buy.We also know that sometimes your loved ones need something besides the book you discovered at Left Bank Books. That’s why I want to remind you about the benefits of making all of your shopping destinations locally-owned businesses. For about a half a dozen years,[...]