When Left Bank Books was established 50 years ago, there was no need to distinguish it as an "independent" bookstore, because there were no behemoth chains to compete with. But even so, the shop arrived with a radically independent spirit befitting its name: it foregrounds authors from the cultural margins, be they gay or female or minority or socialist or just uniquely insightful and original.
Times have gotten a hell of a lot tougher for bookstores like Left Bank, which makes its survival all the more significant and its presence in St. Louis all the more dear. Left Bank is responsible for the majority of author readings and signings that happen in our city, and they have provided a crucial lifeline to the international literary community for half a century now.
This year, to the dismay of book lovers citywide, the store lost its dear shop cat/spirit animal Spike. Spike's plush black fur could be spotted lounging among the children's books, brushing along the art shelves or, occasionally, interrupting readings in progress with his own attention-grabbing techniques. He has been eternalized in the store's art and merchandise, but his presence is still sorely missed.
This anniversary year is a great excuse to put your local values into action and get yourself in the Left Bank Books storefront doing what you know you love to do: browsing the shelves, falling into conversations about beloved authors, sitting down for a reading and just reveling in the analog glory of books and the people who have committed their lives to bringing great books into your life.
If you want everything you own to have the Gateway Arch on it (and who doesn't?), the only place you'll need to visit in the whole city is The Arch Store located next to the museum beneath the Arch. As part of the $380 million in upgrades that were completed last year, this store showcases the history and importance of our favorite St. Louis monument. The brightly lit store offers books, figurines, mugs, keychains, T-shirts and more that all honor our big beautiful Gateway to the West. And best of all, you don't have to pay to get into the actual Arch to visit the store. Just go through security like you normally would, skip through the museum and you'll find The Arch Store waiting for you. Everything down in that beautiful new complex is free to see until you want to see the documentary movie, ride on the riverboat or take the Tram Ride to the Top.
BWorks has a cool storefront in an old brick livery in Soulard. And it has a good collection of used bikes along with some hard-to-find parts, which is also cool. The workers are nice. On those merits alone, it's a pretty great bike shop. But it is also the economic engine for the Earn-A-Bike program, which lets kids, yep, earn a bike if they go through a course that teaches them bicycle safety and maintenance. About 350 kids take part in the volunteer-fueled program each year, and BWorks has been running it for more than three decades. So if you're looking for a cool-looking place with nice people to spend your money, guilt-free, on a bike, this is your spot.
For show-dog style at shop-on-the-corner prices, the only place to visit is Blue Ribbon Grooming. The chorus of barking dogs here is joyous instead of the usual tortured howls, because these dogs know that they are in the hands of greatness. The owner and lead groomer has a history of grooming show poodles, and it shows in your dog's stylish, precise cut. Her steady hands are all about precision and efficiency as she produces show-quality trims while keeping your pup calm and happy during what might be an otherwise stressful situation. Dogs know, you see. And in the case of Blue Ribbon Grooming, they know that they are not only getting freshened up but also being cared for by a person with decades of experience who understands them. Blue Ribbon Grooming deserves a spot in the Winner's Circle.
There was a time when just about every neighborhood had its own filling stations and small mechanic shops. Over the years, more than a few have lost the battle to the Jiffy Lubes and Valvolines, leaving their distinctive buildings to be repurposed as stylish restaurants and shops in some cases and empty eyesores in others. But Carl's has not only held on since opening in 1963, it's thrived. On any given morning, you will see the denizens of Tower Grove South dropping off their cars and SUVs for everything from oil changes to major repairs. It's a small business in the best sense. Founder Carl Osia ran the shop for years before he got lung cancer and died too young in 1988. In the three decades since, his son Michael Osia has done right by the family name, earning a reputation as an honest broker, skilled mechanic and steward of his corner of the neighborhood. It's no wonder that Carl's is the first suggestion for any Tower Grove newcomer asking around for a reliable mechanic.
Flowers & Weeds did, in fact, take over a space occupied by another, prior garden center. But the transition between what was and what is couldn't be more stark; in the still-evolving story of Cherokee Street's continued reinvention, F&W is one of the real wins. Since its arrival as a brick-and-mortar store in 2014, Flowers & Weeds has grown steadily with, its website notes, "our own flower cutting garden, greenhouse, garden center, floral cooler and DIY terrarium station." The latter, in fact, is one of the more interesting spaces in F&W's delightful interior and, on the weekends, it's not uncommon to find a few folks creating on the spot. Outside, there is a significant amount of room given over to Missouri native plants, as well as seasonal vegetables and herbs. While other centers will offer more variety, if only due to added space, Flowers & Weeds does a lot with less. It's become a lovely little rectangular sliver of the south side, part of a sturdy business district at the remarkably creative intersection of Compton and Cherokee.
So you need a whole durian or maybe a jar of legit kimchi; you're not satisfied with the noodle selection at Schnucks or maybe you just ate something amazing at one of South Grand's Vietnamese restaurants and are feeling inspired. Jay not only has you covered — it will show you so many foods that you never even considered. The aisles are marked with the flags of different countries in the same way that more mainstream grocery stores hang signs designating where to find canned beans and peanut butter. And the prices are cheap. This is the place where new immigrants and refugees do their everyday shopping alongside south city home cooks. Wherever you fall into the mix, Jay has what you need.
Opening last December in a sleepy strip mall in St. Ann, Manhattan Antique Marketplace is far more than a simple antique mall. The 44,000-square-foot space also houses a record store, an indoor farmers market, a cafe and an event space, with plans down the road for a tap room and commissary kitchen. It's an ambitious plan, made all the more so by the fact that its owners have chosen to set up shop in the county rather than within St. Louis proper. But it's a gambit that is paying off, with city and county dwellers alike making the trek through its rows after rows of booths while sipping on beers and snacking on sandwiches. And with its recently launched Big Apple Fest, held at the space in September, MAM has made live music a part of its personality as well, bringing the Holy Hand Grenades, Tommy Halloran, Ben Bounce, Matt Sawicki and DJ High Rent to provide a soundtrack to shoppers' bargain hunting. Don't look now, but that sleepy strip mall is starting to wake up.
If electronics stores leave you frustrated, you simply must try a visit to Micro Center in Brentwood. Best Buy is boring and old-style, but Micro Center is exciting and has tons of things you didn't even know that you wanted. It's easy to find an employee here to help service your high-end needs, but the real fun comes while you're waiting in the serpentine checkout line. Scanning those shelves stuffed with low-dollar items will test your impulse-purchase skills like never before. Did you need a tiny flashlight? You definitely need some batteries. You didn't know you needed a phone tripod until now, did you? Oh dang, a universal remote could really be useful. And that bit of stylized molded plastic to wrap your headphone cord around would really help you be a better, more organized person, wouldn't it? Go ahead, blow $10 on something you don't need at all in this aisle. You work hard. You deserve it.