The shelves of Left Bank Books are lined with diverse titles.

Let’s Get Lost in the Pages of Left Bank Books

Monday November 27, 2023

By Rachel Huffman

Looking for a gift that your loved ones can open again and again? Search the shelves of Left Bank Books in the Central West End neighborhood of St. Louis.

Current owner Kris Kleindienst has worked at the independent bookstore since 1974, and she still gets excited talking about her favorite titles. Right now, those include everything from notable novels to gripping memoirs and creative cookbooks to Dolly Parton’s hot-pink coffee-table book, Behind the Seams: My Life in Rhinestones.

Iron Flame, the second installment in The Empyrean series by best-selling author Rebecca Yarros; Talking to My Angels, the second memoir from Grammy Award-winning rocker and LGBTQIA+ icon Melissa Etheridge; and Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook, a practical and transformative guide to conquering the kitchen by Sohla El-Waylly, are other stocking-stuffer suggestions.

“I just finished a fabulous book by Margaret Renkl called The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year, after which we welcomed her to the store for an author event,” Kleindienst says. “The book follows the flora and fauna of Renkl’s backyard over the course of a year, reflecting on the pleasures of the natural world and the sorrows of a shifting climate. Renkl’s prose is beautiful, and the book is spiritual without being religious. I think it will make a wonderful gift for anyone on your list.”

Kris Kleindienst poses in her legendary bookstore, Left Bank Books.
Kris Kleindienst of Left Bank Books | Photo by Mark Hermes

Founded by graduates of Washington University in St. Louis in 1969, Left Bank Books is rooted in social justice. With its diverse selection, it serves residents and visitors alike – especially those who don’t see themselves in the protagonists of books at other shops.

“When Left Bank Books opened, there was no internet,” Kleindienst says. “People only had access to the books that their local bookstores chose to carry, and the original owners of Left Bank Books chose to carry literature that you couldn’t find anywhere else.”

When buying books for the store, Kleindienst and her team keep its mission in mind, but they also pay attention to people and their fluctuating interests.

“I consider popular culture, current events, new trends – some are silly, but they make for bestsellers,” she explains. “For an entire year, we couldn’t keep an adult coloring book on the shelves!”

Left Bank Books has been a vital source of information during trying times, as well. “The St. Louis community came to us for a deeper understanding of the Ferguson unrest between 2014 and 2015,” Kleindienst explains. “The history of race in the U.S. became a focal point of book lists, reading groups and author events at the store. It was a way that we could be useful, and I saw the positive impact of people seeking new information.”

The memoir section of Left Bank Books draws customers' attention.
Photo by Mark Hermes

Today, Kleindienst is seeing a resurgence in romance and fantasy books. “A younger, more diverse generation of writers has reimagined those genres,” she says. “Romance has become more sophisticated, more inclusive, and readers from all walks of life are buying books that spotlight gay or interracial couples.”

Afrofuturism, a cultural aesthetic that combines science-fiction, history and fantasy to explore the African American experience with the aim of connecting those from the black diaspora with their forgotten African ancestry, is also part of recent significant works.

Left Bank Books sells plenty of titles about race relations, climate change and world politics, but customers also have an appetite for entertainment, and Kleindienst enjoys recommending books that will help them escape from reality.

Left Bank Books is located in the Central West End neighborhood of St. Louis.
Photo by Mark Hermes

Homey, soulful and frequently listed as one of the best bookstores on the planet, Left Bank Books is worth a stop.

For 150 Bookstores You Need to Visit Before You Die, American author Elizabeth Stamp selected the most unique bookstores in the world – “and we’re one of them!” Kleindienst says. “Along with establishments in Australia, France, Japan, Italy and other countries, Left Bank Books is one of the most legendary bookstores in the world. I’m not shy about singing our praises – in fact, I don’t think that St. Louis boasts enough about its treasures.”

While you’re in the Central West End, don’t miss other local gems such as the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, Third Degree Glass Factory and the World Chess Hall of Fame.