Tuesday, September 2, 2008

An Open Letter to Booklovers

The 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 Books
We 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.com
Click 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 gifts
Actually 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. www.left-bank.com
5. Give your corporate and institutional book business to Left Bank Books
We 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.com
6. 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 Friends of Left Bank Books
Ok, this might cost you $35 (more if you can) up front, but if you spend $140 at either of our two Friends-only 25% off sales a year, you will break even. http://www.left-bank.com/ Click on the Friends link, or stop by and sign up.
8. Got more to invest in a sustainable future for Left Bank Books?
Left Bank Books is planning a major fundraiser in October to generate much needed capital which will enable us to retire old debt from publishers, upgrade our badly out of date inventory control system and re-work our store to serve you better. We invite anyone with more resources and a commitment to a sustainable, world-class literary center in St. Louis, should contact us immediately. kris@left-bank.com, 314.367.6731

In the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, Clarence shows George what his community would have been like had he never existed. If Left Bank Books had never existed, St. Louis would have missed out on thousands of visits by authors ranging from first-time novelists and obscure poets to judges, princesses, nobel laureates, and presidents. It would have missed out on a store committed to Women’s Gay, and African American studies sections since the 1970s. St. Louisans would have had few places to turn for given publishing advice, coming out advice, and reading advice. Ailing neighbors would have gone without hand-delivered books. There are at least a couple of school libraries that would have had no help in creating and stocking their shelves. Local causes would have missed out on hundreds of book donations. Dozens more would have lacked author event programming and a portion of our proceeds on those booksales. The careers of some major artists may have turned out differently without starter shows in our gallery. What would Euclid and McPherson be without a Left Bank Books for its Duff’s? But most important, without Left Bank Books, St. Louis would have a huge hole in its cultural fabric. The public conversation, the availability of texts, whether poetical or polemical, the relationship of reader to writer to bookseller, all those indefinable but essential qualities of a life lived in the company of books, would be vapor, pure concept, had we never existed.
To the choir out there, thank you for bearing with me. And to the rest of you, I ask you to imagine a future with Left Bank Books and help us make it a reality.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Man Walks Into a Bookstore

Larry 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-blown 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 store mentioned, Lost Generation Books. I was surprised mostly because there has never been a Lost Generation Books in St. Louis. On a hunch, I called Book Up in Archer City to ask about this. Khristal, who took the call, promised to ask him and get back to me. Two days later, she did. “Larry says yes, he was thinking of Left Bank Books when he wrote that, but he got the name mixed up with a bookstore in McLean [Virginia] where he also used to shop.”

Nowadays, when he feels a scouting urge come on, McMurtry heads out to the lower 40 of his own warehouse and is delighted to find, say a woefully under-priced edition of an early Anthony Powell novel which he re-prices from $7.50 and resells immediately for $350. While his rancher relatives may have stocked a pond with bass, McMurtry has a fully stocked library to troll.

Larry McMurtry is a rare breed, clearly a case of nature over nurture. His habitat is secondhand bookstores and private libraries. I consider myself privileged to have grazed near him. In these days of internet shopping, people brag of finding a specific title or edition of something they’re after with a few clicks, but those are empty calories, as if they pushed away a five star meal for drive-through, forgetting, almost, why one reads in the first place. They will never know what they might have missed in this surgical operation, what embarrassment of riches—in sights, sounds, relationships and yes, books—that could have been theirs had they spent a few moments more, and walked into a bookstore.
In Memorium. I am saddened to say goodbye to another passionate book person. Larry Sather, who taught English at St. Louis Community College, Florissant Valley for 39 years, passed away June 27. I loved his dry wit and withering commentary on current affairs, and especially the long conversations we used to have in the basement office of the bookstore where he’d plunk himself down for a chat whenever he stopped by, which was frequently. He was a great supporter of the store, and a dear bookstore friend. He will be missed.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History
(with thanks to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich)

I have been inspired by Phyllis Schlafly to write this article. Most of you will realize how unlikely this source of inspiration is: Phyllis Schlafly is the 83-year-old ├╝ber-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 will always be women to oppress. So why in the world would a co-owner of St. Louis’s 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 pursed 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 personnel), have 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. [http://leftbank.booksense.com/NASApp/store/Product?s=showproduct&isbn=9780312195519]

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 tenured position on the faculty. Come to think of it, not only did Washington University officials overlook my mother and the co-founders of Left Bank Books when they thumbed through their rolodex of prominent graduates, years ago they actually eliminated the very department that spawned all this activism to begin with: the Sociology Department. And, were it not for a generous and carefully worded matching grant from local philanthropist and Women’s Studies “major” Susan Stiritz, there would probably not even be a women’s studies “area” to second- major in any more.

And yet. In a published statement, Chancellor Mark Wrighton apologized for the “anguish” his university’s decision has caused and admitted he doesn’t even hold with most of Schlafly’s positions. He says that the degree is intended to recognize “an alumna of the University whose life and work have had a broad impact on American life,” whether or not you agree with the effect of that impact. I guess that’s why Trustee Emerita Margaret Bush Wilson, another very powerful woman, volunteered to read the citation to award the degree to Phyllis Schlafly. Ms. Wilson is the first woman of color to serve as the national chair of the NAACP, the second woman of color admitted to practice law in Missouri, a prominent St. Louis civil rights attorney for more than 40 years, and—small world--was a colleague and close friend of my mother’s, close enough to speak at her memorial service five years ago.

I am a great admirer of Margaret Bush Wilson. Her life’s work broke ground, sometimes in spite of Phyllis Schlafly’s life’s work. She inspired my mother and she inspires me. I would much rather she get the honorary degree than give it. More than being moved by Schlafly’s impact on America, I guess you could say Ms. Wilson is moved by the First Amendment. I am too. It can be a powerful tool in the right woman’s hands.