Face Out: ABA Board Member Kris Kleindienst on Her Life Among Books

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In the latest installment of our series profiling American Booksellers Association Board members, Bookselling This Week talks to Kris Kleindienst, co-owner of Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri. In April, Kleindienst was elected to her first three-year term (2016–2019) on the ABA Board.

BTW: Please talk about your early experiences with reading and books.

Kris Kleindienst: I began my love affair with books by committing a crime. I stole a book from my kindergarten and told my mother it was given to me. I have long since forgotten the title, but every time I discover something has been shoplifted from my store I figure it is payback. Around the same time, my great aunt, who was a very glamorous, widely travelled woman, sent me a copy of a brand-new children’s book, Eloise, which, as we all know, is about a very independent and resilient young woman. Eloise and I were the same age, although I lived in the Smokey Mountains and she lived at The Plaza. It is safe to say Eloise changed or, perhaps, defined my life and remains to this day my favorite book. I also grew up surrounded by my mother’s books and was taken to the library at semi-regular intervals. I was allowed to read anything and I was a very undisciplined reader. One day it would be Walter Farley’s Black Stallion, another it would be Hawaii by James Michener, or a big book of New Yorker cartoons.

BTW: When did you first become a bookseller? And when did you know that this would become your vocation?

KK: Like most really important decisions in my life, I didn’t give it much conscious thought. I am a person who is subconsciously compelled to do things and figure out why later. I knew the folks who ran Left Bank Books because of anti-war and other social justice projects in the area. I had shopped there. It was 1974. I was 20 and I needed a job. I was interviewed by one member of the Left Bank Books collective but I was hired by group consensus, something I didn’t know until much, much later. In the meantime, I fell in love with the life. Or maybe I recognized myself in bookselling the way I recognized myself in the book Eloise. I may have tried to leave a few times, each time to go back to school and become a writer, but luckily, I figured out early on that I had the perfect day job for all of that all along. Forty-two years later, I am pretty sure I am unemployable anywhere else.

BTW: What do you think are some of the most important changes in the industry since you started your career?

KK: Over four decades a lot has changed. I barely recognize my profession some days! I like to tell my young staff how I would open the store, work all day by myself, receiving books at the counter and filling out little index cards with the quantities, taking care of customers, and eating on the fly … the old “walk five miles to school in the snow” story. I think the most profound change in our industry is the arrival of the digital age. There is not one thing this technology hasn’t touched, for better or for worse. What sustains me is the way books and book people have a way of persevering, withstanding the urge to pixilate and reduce the organic experience of browsing and reading to anonymous bytes.

BTW: What are your key goals as an ABA Board member for fostering the book industry, and bookselling in particular?

KK: My watch phrase that I run everything by is, does this cut the bookstore out of the loop? If the answer is yes, then I work to find ways to change that. This could mean working with a publisher to find a better way to do a particular promotion that works with bookstores, or it could mean talking to a federal lawmaker about e-fairiness. Independent bookstores remain the cornerstone of bookselling; without us, it really doesn’t work. It’s up to us to be visible and vocal as to how best to use the strengths of our bookstores to best support authors and their books in the marketplace of ideas. Publishers need us but we can’t expect them to be mind-readers. We have to step up and engage.

A second issue that I am passionate about is ensuring independent bookstores have access to resources to help them be the best bookstores they can be. We are very, very lucky to have a trade association like ABA and in my tenure on the Board I hope to give back to membership at least a small fraction of what my store has gained from it over the years.

BTW: Are there any particular local causes or organizations in which you or your store has taken a leadership role? If so, why did you think it was important to do so?

KK: Over almost four decades, there have been many. Most recently, we have been vocal in the Black Lives Matter movement, creating a dedicated reading group and an online interactive reading list, programming relevant author events, and working with our staff and neighbors to examine the ways we can be better citizens. We have also been active in our Local First initiatives and co-founded the St. Louis Independent Bookstore Alliance. We started a 501(c)(3) to get books into the hands of St. Louis Public School students and arrange for them to meet authors. In a school system where most schools don’t even have libraries and 85 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced meals, we wanted to do what we were uniquely suited to do to make a difference. Over the years my partner and I have been involved in a lot of other organizations that are near and dear to our hearts as well. Bookstores are such an integral part of a community, all of this just seems like what good citizens do.

BTW: What are you reading now?

KK: We Eat Our Own by Kea Wilson, coming out in September from Scribner (Kea happens to be our events coordinator); My Brilliant Friend, which I am rereading more slowly so as to savor; and The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan, coming out in February from Morrow. Loving all three!

BTW: You get a day to walk through any city, town, or landscape with any one writer. What writer and what place?

KK: I can never narrow it down! So my first thought is Gertrude Stein in her Paris to include dinner at one of her salons. My second is James Baldwin in his Paris. I wouldn’t mind a trip down the Mississippi with Mark Twain or a visit to Greece with Patricia Highsmith either.