By Daniel Barks
Before moving to Boston in 2012, I spent several years working for Left Bank Books, St. Louis’s flagship independent bookstore. Founded in 1969, the store has maintained a strong commitment to community, and has gained a reputation as a platform for social and political discussion. Their author event series has hosted the likes of Hillary Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Madeleine Albright. This week I checked in with one of the store’s co-owners, Jarek Steele, to ask about the bookstore’s response to the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson and the subsequent rallies, protests, and demonstrations.
Daniel Barks: I’ve seen bits and pieces of the store’s (and the staff’s) activities regarding Ferguson since August through social media, but maybe you can give a clearer picture of how the store has responded.
Jarek Steele: Early on we talked about Ferguson in our staff meeting. We talked about how Left Bank Books has always been more than just a bookstore, and that we had the opportunity (and responsibility) to use it to facilitate a public conversation about race, policing, and St. Louis’s history and current practice of segregation. We wanted to celebrate the courage it takes to openly talk about race, make mistakes, learn from them, and move on. Our staff is about ¼ non-white at the moment and very queer, so this message was not unwelcome.
DB: Have the recent protests and demonstrations affected the store?
JS: Most of the protests have taken place outside of the Central West End [the store’s neighborhood], but there have been a few here recently, especially after the Mokabe’s and South Grand incident. On the 25th [of November], protesters demonstrated in the intersection of Euclid and Maryland, about a block away from the bookstore. On Black Friday, protesters shut down malls and interstates in the area. Most of the businesses shut their doors and closed when the protesters arrived, but we knew that was counter to what we knew to be true—that the vast majority of the protesters were angry, but not violent—so we made a conscious decision to, if protesters showed up, keep our doors open, lights on and windows unboarded. They did show up on our corner at around 9:50 PM, just before we closed, and staged a die-in on our corner. It was peaceful and actually pretty powerful. The scariest thing about it was the police, who outnumbered the protesters. Then, last night a group returned to the corner of Euclid and Maryland and started to protest again. A guy in an SUV ran into the crowd and hit some of the protestors and pulled out a gun. He was arrested and released. To sum up, the only violence during the CWE protests so far has come from someone who wasn’t protesting.
DB: I know the staff frequently has a strong activist streak. How have individuals responded?
JS: Some staff members (including fellow co-owner Kris Kleindienst and me) joined in those first protests in Ferguson. Sarah Holt was there much of the time over the first week or two, live tweeting, correcting the news stories and providing real-time true coverage of what was actually happening. On the night that the police stopped gassing the protesters, Kris and I went to the police headquarters in Ferguson and met up with Wintaye Gebru, who lived nearby at the time. We stayed with the crowd while Sarah was protesting by the Walgreens and texted updates to each other. When we were getting ready to leave that night, Kris, Wintaye, and I stood in that parking lot and talked about what else we could do. We decided to go back to what we know—books. We noticed that many people (mostly white) didn’t have any context, and even some who wanted to be allies didn’t have the language to do so. We started by putting together a window with some relevant titles. Then I started an online list using books that the group of us thought of off the top of our heads. Realizing the list was sort of a living thing, I opened it up to the public and vetted hundreds of suggestions and came up with what is now called “Black Lives Matter: A Reading List.”
DB: What led from the reading list to the #FergusonReads discussion group?
JS: The response to the reading list was huge, and many people wanted to add to it and talk about it. Since we had done a few “pop up” reading groups (with a beginning and end date) we decided to give it a try. About fifty people came to the first group. It’s gotten smaller, but it’s still a strong group.
DB: How have the discussions gone so far? Has it felt productive?
JS: The first meeting [discussing Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow] was hard. It was a large group and people were a little shy about talking. In retrospect, we should have broken people up into smaller groups, but we were just feeling our way. There have been some uncomfortable moments, but the last meeting illustrates why we do this. A man with a buzz cut was sort of lingering around the group, listening to us talk. We all sort of thought he was a cop, but finally he asked if he could sit down and join. It turned out that he had had a really traumatic experience with the police when he was a kid. He talked a lot about it, which derailed the conversation a little, but he really needed to talk. You could tell that a load had been lifted off his shoulders after sharing it with a group.
DB: On a slightly different note, I saw the store’s Angel Tree Project is benefitting Ferguson area schoolchildren this year. Can you explain briefly what the Angel Tree Project is?
JS: The Angel Tree Project is something we do every year around the holidays. Customers buy books from us and donate them to kids who might not otherwise get a book of their own. The books are wrapped and delivered to the kids in time for the Holidays. This year, we decided to team up with Airport Elementary School in the Ferguson-Florissant school district. Author Paula Stokes (Fiona Paul) is rallying other authors and industry folks to support it on social media and spread the word.
To keep up with Left Bank Books’s ongoing support for justice and the conversation in St. Louis, check them out on Facebook or Twitter. To support the store’s Angel Tree Project, click here and choose one of the K-6 classrooms to donate a copy of the selected books.
If you’re interested in taking part in the #FergusonReads book discussions but are outside of the St. Louis area, consider talking to your own local bookstore, library, or school about starting a group. Keep the conversation going.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daniel Barks is the sales assistant at Beacon Press. He joined Beacon in 2013 with extensive indie bookstore background having worked in management at both Left Bank Books in St. Louis and Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis.