A glossily packaged Hollywood star vehicle with a happily-ever-after ending seems an unlikely fave for the cultured proprietors of Left Bank Books, but You've Got Mail delivers more than a meet-cute romance between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan: It's an unabashed love letter to the independent bookseller. When Ryan's children's-bookshop owner shut her doors after Hanks' bookstore tycoon opened a Barnes & Noble-style superstore nearby, Left Bank co-owner Lisa Greening felt an unfortunate empathy. "I was a mess," says Greening, who as store manager helped close U. City's Paul's Books in 1996. "And I was the only one crying in the whole theater."
"I had some hard times, too," admits Barry Leibman, another of Left Bank's partners. "When they put up the 40 percent sales signs, my heart fell. It really kind of encapsulates a lot of what's happening now. When (Ryan)'s up in the children's section of Tom Hanks' store, and this customer comes in and asks a question of the salesperson, and she knows the history of the author, what's in print and what isn't, seeing those things, I said to myself, 'Goddammit, I'm better at this than anybody. Why give this up? This is something that I'm good at.' It was kind of inspirational."
Independent booksellers require inspiration these days, as they attempt to avoid extinction at the hands of the predators who have stalked them throughout the '90s: Barnes & Noble and Borders, which currently have a combined seven megastores in the metro area, and online behemoth Amazon.com. Left Bank thus far is one of the survivors, and it celebrates its 30th anniversary with an appearance on July 28 by John Berendt, author of the bestselling phenomenon Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Started by a collective of Washington University students in July 1969, Left Bank Books grew out of the antiwar movement and cultural upheaval of the time. "Culture and politics were the things it wanted to do," says Leibman. "This was at the rise of a whole new set of social concerns and literature relating to those concerns. The purpose of the store was to provide literature that no one else was doing at the time."
Over its 30-year existence, Left Bank has changed considerably, of course. The original collective exited in the early '70s, and the store was eventually purchased by Leibman and Kris Kleindienst both of whom began working at Left Bank in the mid-'70s with Greening joining the partnership in 1996.
The store left its original home in U. City in '77 to escape, ironically, the competition from Paul's relocating at 399 N. Euclid Ave. in the Central West End, then still in the midst of its restoration. Left Bank has since expanded at the CWE site, taking over neighboring storefronts and opening a coffeehouse, Cafe Danielle, which is now operated independently. Still, whatever the era the heady '70s, the expansionist '80s, the hard-times '90s Left Bank has maintained it commitment to progressive politics and serious culture, supporting the difficult and ignoring the superficial.
But the rise of the megastore with its huge stock and deep discounts has put increasing pressure on independents such as Left Bank. Until recently, Greening says, "Bookstores were cultural entities, not big business. But in the early '90s that changed in the book industry, and it became money-making: How fast can we move this product? These big companies figured out mathematically how long you can keep a book on the shelf to make it profitable, whereas Paul Schoomer (of Paul's Books) and Barry looked at a book, and read it, and figured out what the customers would like."
Left Bank is the last full-service independent operating in Missouri, and the big stores are casting an ever more threatening shadow, with Barnes & Noble taking over the Wash. U. medical-school bookstore to Left Bank's east on Euclid. Barnes & Noble plans to expand the store's space from 2,000 to 12,000 square feet, making it four times the size of Left Bank.
Despite the competitive disadvantage, Leibman remains cautiously optimistic. "This is the first year in a decade that we showed a profit," he says, "so we may be actually turning the corner." Leibman emphasizes that bigger is not always better: "Because of size, we have to be more discerning about what we carry. When someone comes in here, you don't have to wade through everything that got published that year to find something." And when a customer is looking for help, Leibman asserts, Left Bank particularly excels. "The people who work here are the same as the people who own it," he says. "There's a commitment beyond the paycheck. That really shows in customer service. I think that's why our business is starting to come back up. People realize that if they have a question, or they're read something by one author and they want to get something of a similar nature by somebody else they don't know, they have to come to a place like us. We're it, so they want to support us."
"We've also created a kind of literary salon where people go to, a community center," says Greening. "That has been my entire goal for being here not just to have readings by one or two great authors a month but having something going on here almost every night. What I've been seeing it's a slow process is that this is a place that people hang out. What do you do at night? Some people go to their favorite restaurant all the time. Some people go to their favorite movie theater. Well, now we've got a group of people who come here."
Left Bank wants to expand that community-building role by adding a nonprofit adjunct to its for-profit business. "It's in the rough stages right now," says Greening. "We're going to call it Read St. Louis. Basically it's going to go into the city schools and talk to kids about reading. We're not going in to teach reading; we're going to go in to talk about the love of reading. We'll bring authors into the schools, do community events to bring authors in, to increase awareness of the importance of reading, the fun of reading. I think that bookstores can do that better than anybody."
Leibman and his partners remain believers in Left Bank's importance: "We decided this a long time ago," he says. "We're not going to give up. And that, I think, is different from most businesses. The bookstore was more important than us as individuals. There's got to be some reason why we're the last one, and it's not financial I think it's just desire.
"It's been a dream," concludes Leibman, "and it's hard to give up on that. It's always been idealism over practicality. There's something about the fact that these are books, that this is knowledge can I be so close to something that I love and give it up because it's not working? You've got to find a way to make it work. So we've just kind of kept going, hoping that something would happen, and things have happened. What does anybody do in a crisis? You just have to figure out where your real core values are and find a way, if you can, to sustain them."
John Berendt reads from and signs copies of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as part of the 30th-anniversary celebration of Left Bank Books at 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 28, at Trinity Episcopal Church, 600 N. Euclid Ave. The event is free; call the store at 367-6731 for more information.
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