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Left Bank Books finds support as customers step up to shop, donate

"We saw a massive response after our appeal"
Credit: SLBJ
Kris Kleindienst of Left Bank Books

ST. LOUIS — Response to a request for support for Left Bank Books, the 51-year-old bookstore in the Central West End, has been “immediate and overwhelming,” according to co-owner Kris Kleindienst.

She had asked first, in a Facebook video Oct. 22, for customers to buy books, “a lot of books,” and shop from the store’s online holiday catalogue. After making it through the pandemic-impacted spring and summer, “the fall is not so great,” she said in the video. “Our business in October is 46% down from last October.”

She and co-owner Jarek Steele again asked customers for help in an email Saturday, adding an option to make a direct donation to keep the store running. Headed into the holiday season and the last two months of the year, which account for one-third of the store’s annual revenue, “we’re struggling,” the email and a web posting said.

Customers responded.

“We saw a massive response after our appeal,” she said. In addition to making cash donations, customers have placed online orders such that the store is “scrambling this week to keep up,” said Kleindiesnt, who did not share how much the store has raised in donations. “It’s a very, very happy problem to have.”

The store has found that it takes about three times the labor to process an online sale, especially for mailing, than a typical retail transaction. “So it’s a lot of work, but it needs to be nearly unmanageable amount of work for us to be successful,” she said.

After the pandemic shutdown in March, the store pivoted first to online and phone-order fulfillment by mail or curbside pickup, and recently opened for in-store shopping by appointment. But to keep customers and booksellers safe, Left Bank is only letting in a few customers at a time. “It’s gone well, but we’re only letting in like a half-dozen people at a time, so we know those numbers alone could not bring our business back," she said. "The math doesn’t work. We still need to see robust online sales or it doesn’t work.”

RELATED: Left Bank Books asks readers for help as it struggles amid pandemic

The store, at 399 N. Euclid Ave., still has been able to keep from laying off any of its 14 employees, Kleindienst said.

Sales took an abrupt drop in September, then got worse in October, “and we had pretty much exhausted everything,” she said. “We didn’t want to sacrifice people’s livelihoods and just wait around and hope things got better. We felt we had to at least alert people.”

Nationally, about one independent bookstore a week is closing, Kleindienst said, and outright appeals by bookstores have become more prevalent as the months have worn on.

This wasn’t the first time in the store’s more than five decades that it’s asked the community for support.

The first time Left Bank Books appealed to the public was in 1977. Facing competition from a national chain and Washington University’s own bookstore, Left Bank’s then-ownership felt they couldn’t compete in its former Delmar Loop location and spotted the current Euclid Avenue site. Kleindienst, then a bookseller who hadn’t yet bought into the business, said the store was in such debt, they couldn’t figure out how to afford the move.

At the sales counter one day, Kleindienst said, she shared the problem with a customer who said, “Why don’t you just ask people for money? I’ll give you $100.”

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