For five hours Jarek Steele, co-owner of Left Bank Books, stood shoulder-to-shoulder, arm-in-arm, with his partner, Kris Kleindienst, store manager Wintaye Gebru, and thousands of other St. Louis area residents over the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Steele marched, sang, and chanted with the peaceful groups of protesters, even as night began to fall and tension in the air thickened. Once protesters reached the police station, where they prayed, Steele wondered what more he could do to make a difference.
As Ferguson continues to dominate the news, there’s too often a lack of context on the driving force behind the protests and the police response to it. All Digitocracy spoke with Steele about his efforts to curate a reading list to offer that context. The idea came to life while Steele, his business partner and the bookstore’s manager protested in Ferguson last Thursday.
All Digitocracy: Tell us a little bit about your bookstore, and the role the store plays in St. Louis and surrounding communities?
Jarek Steele: Left Bank Books was founded in 1969 by a group of Washington University students in response to the lack of alternative literature in the St. Louis area during the Vietnam war. Now in our 45th year, we have grown and evolved into a full-line independent bookstore with the first “gender studies” section in the area, the largest LGBTQ section in the area and selections of books ranging from pop culture to art to poetry to civil rights. Our mission is to strengthen the St. Louis community by encouraging literacy and local economic growth. We host over 300 author events per year ranging from small poetry readings to larger events with nationally known authors.
AD: Describe the community(ies) that Left Bank Books serve(s).
JS: We serve the greater metropolitan area of St. Louis, the surrounding counties and some towns in Illinois. We are located in the Central West End, one block south of Delmar, the virtual dividing line between black and white and rich and poor St. Louis. The BBC did a piece on this some years ago. The population of St. Louis and the surrounding counties continues to grow and change, and the current configuration is about 49 percent black, 44 percent white and growing populations of Latino and Asian citizens. We’ve also become the home to the largest number of Bosnians outside of Bosnia. Diversity notwithstanding, St. Louis struggles mightily with economic and racial inequality.
AD: Where did the idea come from to curate a list of books, blogs, articles and poems to help residents understand what’s happening in Ferguson?
JS: My partner Kris Kleindienst, our store manager Wintaye Gebru and I protested across the street from the Ferguson Police Department on [the night of Aug. 14]. We started talking about what we could do as a bookstore to support the community and used this as a jumping-off point to actually talk and think deeply about race outside of protests – to continue the conversation beyond the news headlines and crisis. Then a Facebook friend of mine posted a few books he liked on his Facebook thread, and we were off and running.
AD: How do you go about selecting the books, articles and poems featured on your list?
JS: We started with the books we could think of that discussed racism, the militarization of the police force, the history of legal imbalance and what it means to be black in this culture. Then, knowing our customers needed to participate in this, we extended the invitation to recommend books, articles, blog posts, poems and anything else that would help put this into context.
JS: I think it’s important for many different reasons. Personally, I wanted to do something proactive that I didn’t see anyone else doing – something I knew how to do. Participating in the peaceful protests was a first step, but I knew we had a further responsibility to our community to make literature and information accessible and curate it so that the real problem – the bias against black men – wouldn’t get lost in the weeds and buried under stories of looting or violence. Also, this collection of books and articles represent an area of literature that isn’t browsed as often as, say, John Green especially by our white customers even if they’re well-intentioned. It’s important to learn the context of this situation, discuss it, argue about it, cry about it and then help each other find our way out of it.
AD: What does it mean to you to do this? For the bookstore, sales? For the community?
JS: Like I mentioned before, for me personally, this is a way I can support and build this community using the larger megaphone of the bookstore. I’m fortunate enough to have access to this store’s mailing list, customers and social media followers (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter). It’s responsible and necessary for a bookstore to offer its city a place to read about what’s going on around them. Our customers shop with us and come to our events because we’re all hungry for human interaction and the free, safe exchange of ideas. Our store is one very important way of doing that – it’s not just about selling, but about strengthening. I know that sounds false and hokey, but it’s true. I did encourage folks to buy the books locally if they were going to buy them or use the city or county library system to borrow them. This is a for-profit business. We have to sell books to keep our lights on, but making a living and doing social good are not mutually exclusive ideas. You don’t have to just do one or the other. Sometimes if you’re lucky you can use one to strengthen the other.
AD: Who is the audience? Are you doing this for Ferguson residents?
JS: It really started as a resource for the St. Louis City and County communities, but the responses we’re getting are from local citizens and people thousands of miles away. We’ve gotten lots of great suggestions, some not so great, and very few mean spirited and ugly. I think the spirit of civility and hopefulness about honoring the “better angels of our nature” appeals to lots of people, so we’re doing it for them.
AD: How will you know if you’re making a difference?
JS: I suppose I won’t. Not yet, at least. Sometimes the exposure to a new idea in a book, poem or story takes years to germinate into a change of mind. Sometimes the ideas have to act in concert with experience to make a difference. Extracting racism from our culture is not something this list can do right away, but it can point some of us in the right direction.
AD: Will people in Ferguson care about this list? Will they read the list? Will you host a conversation around the list?
JS: I hope people in Ferguson will care about this list, and perhaps they will in moments where they aren’t preoccupied with immediate crisis. We’re planning to put together a pop-up reading group featuring some of these books where we select some of these and read one per month and have guided discussions about it. We did a similar thing this summer to read one author’s whole collection and it was really popular. This seems to be something that would pair nicely with that kind of format. I think we’d need to do it in Ferguson, around the other towns in St. Louis county as well as the city.
AD: Will people who are following it by social media care? Will they be able to access this list and how?
JS: We’ve already gotten a good response on social media. I sent out an e-mail this morning and received lots of great replies to that as well. The book list is accessible from the front page of our website and that page links to the page we’ve started linking to some online content (which is nowhere near complete – I had to spend a lot of time today catching up with the bills). I hope people care about this list, but even if only some care and only a few read it and even fewer read the books, it will have been worth the time putting it together.