It gets harder all the time to be eccentric in Seattle. The financial squeeze of living in a city ever more dominated by tech behemoths like Amazon and Microsoft means that truly alternative institutions can have a rough go of it. Left Bank Books proudly carries the torch. In a warren of rooms near the entrance to the Pike Place Market, Left Bank has operated as an anarchist collective for almost 50 years, and if you think that’s easy, then you haven’t ever (1) met any anarchists or (2) done anything collectively.
This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
Left Bank’s shelves are jammed with books of queer theory, labor history, Marxist and anarchist philosophy, and all the poetry you could ever want. For years, the front room—facing the madly busy market—was devoted to fiction, divided into books by male authors on one wall and female authors on the opposite one. Back in the 1970s, when the store opened, this was a bold feminist approach to bookselling. With its primo location, Left Bank attracts a huge amount of tourist traffic, and a few months ago the collective switched things up, moving more political books to the front so tourists would know exactly what they were getting themselves into from the moment they stepped in the door.
In its endeavors and its very presence, Left Bank is a reminder that other ways of being and thinking exist outside the atmosphere of mindless consumption in which most of us reside. The collective has a publishing project that puts out an eclectic assortment of radical work. Left Bank also sponsors the Books to Prisoners program, which for half a century has put books into the hands of incarcerated folks.
It’s just right that Left Bank is in the market, not simply because the market is the real soul of Seattle but also because so much of the city’s labor history has taken place on the surrounding streets. In the early 20th century, the rabble-rousers of the Industrial Workers of the World—or Wobblies, as they were affectionately known—would climb onto soapboxes and declaim the rights of the worker on the very bricks that pave the street in front of Left Bank.
Full disclosure: I was a Left Bank volunteer when I was in high school, way back in the 1980s. I learned from my comrades about apartheid and Solidarnosc, gay pride (as we then called it) and Bakunin. A wild man used to swing by to talk our ears off every week or two, and this turned out to be the outlaw poet Steven Jesse Bernstein, who went on to open for Nirvana and Soundgarden, at least once with a live rodent hanging out of his mouth.
A couple of years ago, my son also volunteered at Left Bank—in this era, gender theory and Marxism were much under discussion. He met with a study group on Saturday evenings after the store closed. The front-room lights were turned off, and the group gathered in the bowels of the building to discuss the deeply impenetrable writings of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze.
This story represents what I love about Left Bank and what I don’t want lost from Seattle: this secret knowledge, this commitment to art, this profound weirdness, this disruption of the late-capitalist sheen that overlays our city. Left Bank is the Seattle I want to keep.•
Left Bank Books
92 Pike St., Seattle, leftbankbooks.com
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