Literature with a side of anarchy: A sneak peek into one of America’s premier radical bookstores

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Staffers from News and Yearbook Journalism attended the National High School Journalism Convention, held in Seattle, Washington from April 6-9. This is one of three stories in a series called “Sights and Sounds of Seattle” documenting their trip.

Co-Written by Zainie Qureshi

Photography by Meghan King and Megan Matty

Chris Paine sits still on a stool in a room that looks as if it may explode.

The room, small in size, is cozied by the books that fill the space with every inch of shelf space. The walls are lined with uneven shelves, while a cushioned nook overlooks the groggy, wet streets. Smelling of yellowed pages and sweet dust, the store’s busy. Feet shuffle and left and right in a curious tango to move up and down the store’s close quarters. He scratches his beard and surveys the room, tapping furiously on a computer. He gets up from his post, walking up a cramped set of stairs. To his left, reads a poster for sale. $12.

“YOUR OPPRESSION IS THE AESTHETIC OF OUR ANGER!” it exclaims in stark black typeface, bold enough to get one’s attention from the other end of the store. It does.

Left Banks Book Collective thrives on anarchy and is fueled by liberalism. It has sat in the outskirts of Seattle’s Pike Place Market since 1973. Run and owned collectively by volunteers and the “core” collective, paid members with at least one year of volunteering experience, Left Bank has become a refuge not only for bookworms but for people who need to claim a welcoming space in the world.

“I’ve been here so long, so I’ve been able to grow as a person. It’s given me the opportunity to discuss ideas and be exposed to all kinds of situation and works. It’s been such a big part of my life,” Paine said.

Walking through the close quarters of Left Bank, you won’t find John Green’s latest release or The Harry Potter series onsite. With genres ranging from science fiction to civil rights to even children literature, Left Bank’s book selection aims to educate the surrounding community and encourage critical thinking. “Whether it’s fiction or poetry or gardening we try to focus on things that are libertarian. We try to be a place for people that don’t feel welcomed in other places,” Paine said.

We try to be a place for people that don’t feel welcomed in other places.

Adorned with the works of Octavia Butler, James Baldwin, and the yellowed pages of used paperbacks, Left Bank has become a pillar for radical and thought provoking literature. “We get a lot of different people here; people who know about us or people who have never heard of us. The surrounding community kind of count on us as a resource,” Paine said.

Paine waltzes through the throng of teenage girls surrounding the “activism” section, his shoulder scraps by a piece of paper. Draped over the endless bookshelves lie colorful sticky notes, scribbled with handwritten messages by people from the collective listing some of their favorite books in each area of the store. “We try to encourage everybody in the collective to write staff picks for books that they’ve read and liked. It helps people feel more engaged within the and gives a more personal touch,” Paine added.

A lot of these books aren’t getting big releases. They aren’t on New York Times Bestseller lists, so we try to be an outlet for things that are hard to find.

Perched upon the corner of their highest floor is a reading nook and bench with cushions and a window overlooking Pike Place Market. Left Bank is known for this tiny spot in their store as many people often find peace sitting there while burying themselves in their new find. “A lot of people come here and take pictures as they sit there. People also come here for wedding photos and graduation photos, and is conveniently located next to our anarchist section,” a grinning Paine said.

A pillar in the community, Left Bank strives to give local creators a platform. The “OPPRESSION” poster comes from a local art collective. The back room’s centerpiece is a shrine to Seattle artist and writers with zines and graphic novels. In its corner sit children’s books written and illustrated by unknown authors.

“A lot of these books aren’t getting big releases. They aren’t on New York Times Bestseller lists, so we try to be an outlet for things that are hard to find,” Paine said.

On a cozy Saturday, Left Bank thrives with people filing in and milling about in the bookstore. The rain continues to pour on the roofs of surrounding stores, the people continue to mill about the market, and Left Bank Books Collective continue to sit in their cranny between flower shops and musicians busking on the streets of Pike Place, nourishing minds with  literature while providing a safe space to the outcasts, as it has for the past 44 years.  And they’re not looking to go anywhere anytime soon.

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Literature with a side of anarchy: A sneak peek into one of America’s premier radical bookstores