Crumbling brick and creaking wood, Left Bank Books is an anarchist bookstore nestled comfortably in Pike Place Market in Seattle. In contrast to the cacophonous nature of Pike Market, Left Bank Books is a quiet, calming atmosphere; providing a cozy, safe place for tourists and locals alike. What would be described as “an organized chaos,” by Madeline–a frequent visitor–Left Bank is a hurricane of reading material all conjoined in one place. Everything from queer studies to environmental activism to African colonialism line all three floors of this bookstore. Founded in 1973, Left Bank Books has had an immense impact on the Pike Place Market; ranging from its presence in the LGBTQ community, excellent and friendly customer service, and its social work with prisoners.
Established in 1973, Left Bank Books arrived to the Seattle scene when a group of radical individuals strayed away from Red and Black Books to form their own collective bookstore. The bookstore foregoes operating in the standard hierarchical structure; choosing instead to function as a collectively run business. What does this mean? It means that as a worker-owned establishment, there are no managers or sole owners of the company; there are roughly six paid members, responsible for bookkeeping, taxes, lease negotiation etc. Working alongside these employees, there are approximately twenty weekly volunteers that are responsible for general upkeep and maintenance of the store; who are rewarded with discounts on books and are trained on “how to run an independent bookstore."
Why choose to operate as a collectively-run business? Quinn, a twenty-something student with a hunger for sci-fi and an employee at Left Banks explains that “individuals are equally empowered to make decisions related to the store. We prioritize sharing knowledge and information with each other so that no one person possesses all the information about a particular task. All decisions are made through an informal consensus process. This means that all decisions are discussed until collective agreement is reached,” thus creating a more unified, strong unit. This sense of unity among the employees transfers through to the customers to encourage feelings of peace and belonging.
Although not strictly identified as a LGBTQ orientated establishment, the overall feeling of belonging and acceptance encourages a younger audience identifying with the LGBTQ community to take refuge in this safe haven. When visitors were asked about their overall impression from their experience with Left Bank Books, frequent responses were directed towards the friendliness of the staff.
“After visiting the store three times, the employees remembered me by name and always recommended me new reading material, excellent customer service,” explained frequent customer Michael Salazarr, who made coming to Left Bank Books a Sunday tradition with his wife after moving to Seattle 3 years ago.
I spoke with Jackie, a 19-year-old trans boy, who describes why he comes to Left Bank Books; “In high school, I didn’t understand the way I was feeling [sexual identity and orientation], I didn’t have any support. But everybody that worked at Left Bank Books was really open to showing me books to read to help me understand how I felt physically, mentally, and emotionally. I knew that I was never being judged when I came here.”
While these interactions all showed positive experiences, I did encounter a few customers that were unhappy with their experience with Left Bank Books. Typically expressed through online forums such as Yelp, customers like Jake from California expressed their distaste with the customer service; “It was more than a little disconcerting when some younger scruffy, Occupy Seattle looking dude wouldn't let me past the cash register with my backpack securely affixed to my back. Let me rephrase that. It was purely INSULTING!” Comments such as these surfaced roughly 1 in every 15 positive comments towards Left Bank Books. However, what Jake is unaware of is that it has been the standard of Left Bank Books to ask for your bags since its founding in 1973.
Tracing back its heritage, Left Bank Books has quite the story to it. Throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s, Left Bank Books served as an umbrella for three projects (Harper); Left Bank Books, Left Bank Distribution–the online resource–and Books to Prisoners; a volunteer-run nonprofit group that sends free books to incarcerated people.
Books to Prisoners provides literature to people in prison all over the United States. According to Left Bank Books online, the project receives “over 700 requests for books each month and attempts to send 1-3 books to each person in prison they receive a request from. The project relies wholly upon donations." While the project cannot receive hardcover books to donate, paperbacks such as dictionaries, self-help legal books, black studies, and novels written in Spanish are welcome. Books to Prisoners is just one of the many nonprofit projects under Left Bank’s belt.
After its founding as a collective in 1973, Left Bank Books became registered as a federal corporation in the 1990s in order to protect individual employees from any financial responsibility. However, Left Bank is not federally registered as a non-profit establishment although they carry out over three on-going nonprofit projects.
Left Bank Books, with its radical, anarchist beliefs and organized chaos of reading material has proved to be a valuable resource for knowledge in Pike Place Market. While fulfilling its original purpose to provide resources to the public on important issues in society, Left Bank Books has extended beyond this to serve as a safe place for locals and tourists a lot, greatly influencing young members of the LGBTQ community and extending a warm welcome to tourists in Seattle.
*Names have been altered for safety