By Katiuscia O’Brian
In a mid-week fit of restlessness, I decided to go on the hunt for my favorite activity: finding artistic and cultural events that serve free wine. What is better than being at a hip place, hearing amazing artists doing their thing, and enjoying it with a large plastic cup of red wine in the company of like-minded St. Louisians.
Well I was in luck, on Wednesday November 14th, I had the good pleasure to get a tip to hear Kathleen Finneran reading a new essay from the anthology “My Bookstore” at the CWE Left Bank Books. This anthology is a wonderful collection of 84 essays written by 84 writers who pay tribute to their favorite independent bookstores.
Walking from my car toward the bookstore in what can easily be described as an upscale trendy neighborhood in an historic part of St Louis, I actually ran into Finneran on the street and asked if she was nervous. “Hey Kat! No, not at all” she coolly smiled, and I held the door to let her in at the Left Bank Bookstore’s Central West End location on the corner of Euclid and McPherson. Not only was I super impressed she even remembered me and my name from meeting her one time, months ago – but her demure was so cool, calm, and collected. Not how I would be right before reading to a large crowd!
And large crowd it was. The room was packed to capacity – retro folding school chairs linearly placated in the void left behind by shelves on wheels pushed aside is what greeted the lucky folks who came early enough for a seat. This mixed crowd was full of Finneran’s students from the MFA program at the nearby Washington University, as well as retirees, lovers of LBB, and smattering of folks like me.
Also in attendance and much to everyone’s delight (except to those allergic): Spike the black resident cat found the perfect spot to watch the reading from underneath the center front row seat.
I grabbed a big ole glass of Zen for Zin wine and took a seat in the second row. Why is it that free wine always tastes better, especially at book readings?
Kris Kleindienst, one of the co-owners and matriarch of Left Bank Books nervously introduced Finneran. Rather, she was overcome with emotion. Left Bank Books was founded more than 40 years ago and she has been at the helm, watching one independent book store shutter after another – always staying the course.
She started by announcing that when she was approached to find a local writer to write about LBB, she decided on Kathleen – because she knew she would say yes. Kleindienst proceeded to extol how touched she was with the essay Finneran wrote and is glad she did agree to write it after all.
On that note, Finneran stood up, smiled grandly, and retorted that she probably said yes all too quickly and shortly realized not too long after that she probably should have declined. Lovingly ribbing Kleindiest, “she knew I would say yes, but she really didn’t let me say no – several times”. You could tell from their bantering that they are, indeed, close friends and have known each for years. In fact, it ended up Finneran was even closer friends with the dusty book shelves in LBB and the bulletin board that sits in the entryway archway detailing local readings, writing contests, and other local happenings for much longer.
What followed was an intimate reading of Finneran’s admiration of LBB and what a huge and important part the bookstore has in her life. The tone of the essay and Finneran’s reading was lighthearted, humorous, and poignant. I felt I was whisked away from my seat and through the lens of her life as it bobbed and weaved from one phase to another: all intricately linked to bookstores in various places she called home. However, none have a space in her heart or personal growth like LBB.
She described her memories of being a new writer intent on publishing her works that didn’t exist yet. Her warm memories of Kleindienst helping her find the books and resources she needed at such a pivotal time of her writing career. She walked us mentally through the store as it looks at that time – most memorably of her beloved “Belles Letters” section that used to stand guard by the check out station; the rare and first edition section, where she recounted each book that used to grace those shelves such as J. D. Salinger’s Zooey and Franny and to include the infamous bulletin board in the entrance archway that she, as an older woman, no longer peruses to find things to fill her days.
She occasionally stopped her readings to drink from her glass of water and to make sure her niece and nephew were comfortable sitting on the floor in front of us. Leaning back in into her essay, she read on, just wrapping us up with her words and giving a warm, intimate feeling as we walked down memory lane with her. Periodically at enunciated points of her story, she would smile and state “Exclamation Point!” all the while making a large exclamation point in the air with her left hand; this would occur any time in her essay when there was an aside section or portion the publishers felt needed to be emphasized.
Fast forward to the apex of her essay: when Finneran painted the story of her very first book reading when she was first published, which, of course, was held at Left Bank Books. She was living in NYC at the time and flew to St Louis for this event, her hometown. In a comedy of errors, she forgot her only edition of her own book which was further amplified as a situation in that she was relying on using that book to write her talk the morning of the event.
Frantically going from one big box bookstore to another, she couldn’t find a single copy of her “quietly released” book. Finally realizing LBB would have several of her books on hand for her reading that night; she did a drive of shame to CWE to buy a copy.
It had been many years since she had been back to LBB at that point but it all was the same; exactly how she remembered it. She bought her book and meekly told the clerk who she was. Immediately Kleindienst was brought to her attention and she lovingly showed Finneran the layout of the speaker area, what to expect, and showed her the huge stack of her books that were ready for sale that evening. Clearly her mistake that day ended up being a blessing in disguise. And Kleindienst and Finneran have been good friends since.
Hearing the emotion and story behind how a small independent bookstore helped propel her career in many ways and how this same bookstore, the one we were sitting in and hearing this amazing reading, made it that more of a pronounced and emotional evening.
I don’t think it is every day when you have a collusion of the writer, their imagination, the support system, and the reality of their inspiration all converge into one space and time. That evening was amazingly one of those moments.
Visit Left Bank Books both in the CWE and Downtown and be sure to grab a copy of “My Bookstore” as well as Katheleen Finneran’s other notable book The Tender Land: A Family Love Story. While you are there, be sure to say hi to Spike!
You can also read an Alive Magazine’s interview with Kathleen Finneran here.
Kathleen Finneran is the author of the memoir The Tender Land: A Family Love Story (Houghton Mifflin, 2000; Mariner Paperbacks, 2003). Her essays have been published in various anthologies, including The Place That Holds Our History (Southwest Missouri State University Press, 1990), Seeking St. Louis: Voices from a River City (Missouri Historical Society Press, 2000), and The “M” Word: Writers on Same-Sex Marriage (Algonquin, 2004). She is the recipient of the Missouri Arts Council Writers’ Biennial Prize, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship