Left Bank Books, Pike Place Market’s collectively run anarchist bookstore, turns 25 in August, and the staff is planning a party. But while it’s supposed to be an anniversary celebration, it’s just as likely to turn into a farewell.
Barely afloat, the collective is understaffed, deeply in debt, and is scrambling for ways to make money without changing its core merchandise—highly specialized titles about nuclear war, vegetarianism, and labor history, not to mention the most definitive collection of beat literature, surrealist books, and drug-culture lore in the city.
Collective member Linda Wehnes says that since Borders opened three blocks up the road in 1994, Left Bank’s sales plunged 30 percent. These days people are asking for books on dieting, self-help, and angels.
“We know what we [could] do to make money,” says Wehnes. One option is to get rid of the books and sell more shirts, buttons, and bumper stickers emblazoned with witty, anti-establishment-minded phrases. These sales continue to increase as the books get less popular. But collective members want to keep their hand-picked anarchist titles on the shelves. “[Books] have changed me for the better, and I want to provide that experience for others,” says staff member Matthew King.
Other independent booksellers say that Left Bank might do better to put more emphasis on proven best sellers. “Sometimes it’s worth it to carry several Angela’s Ashes, if that’s what it takes to keep the store going,” says Ronica Mukerjee of Red and Black Books, Left Bank’s sister collective on Capitol Hill. Red Reddick, a Red and Black veteran now at Twice Sold Tales, says, “I’ve no problem with selling Sue Grafton to keep Audre Lord on the shelves.” She says 20-odd years of selling literature has taught her to appreciate other readers’ tastes, even if they’re not her own. “I went in as an activist and came out a bookseller,”
Left Bank’s current staff doesn’t believe best sellers are the answer, especially with Borders’ mighty 30 percent discounts available a few blocks way. The biggest discount the collective can afford on new titles is a meager 10 percent, which pales by comparison.
The collective does have some ideasthat may boost business as well as flagging membership. Now a general partnership, Left Banks is presently restructuring as a limited-liability corporation. This new legal status, it is hoped, will attract new members and entice those already present to stay longer by removing the personal liability each member must now bear for the store’s finances. Currently, if the store goes bankrupt, so do its employees—an arrangement that keeps turnover high. “I’ve waited for the day for someone to fall down the stairs, and we all get sued,” says King.
King says when he first joined the collective in 1991, long-time union activists were still just hanging out to chat with staff and customers. They have since disappeared: Some have died or moved away, and others have grown disgusted with the Market’s new upscale character. The collective hopes to attract a new community of regular patrons by scheduling a series of literary events. Readings by activist Tom Frank and Seattle writer Saab Loftin, for example, have attracted crowds of as many as 40 people, quite a respectable number.
But whether all these changes are enough remains to be seen. The collective is painfully aware that it was unprepared for Borders, and has been slow to respond to its impact. Members can tell you they have a $100,000 worth of books on their shelves, but they can’t say how many sales they average a day. In its 25 years, the store has never tracked the books that did best there and never analyzed its market more systematically than what collective members could observe with their own eyes. If it dies, Left Bank Books will be missed by loyal customers, some from as far away as Germany and Japan, who can always find there fringe-culture gems that aren’t available anywhere else. But to the rest of the world, it will just be another independent bookstore that closed down.