For Duane Wilkins, University Book Store is a family affair. His mother worked there for over 20 years, and he started shopping there, by his own estimation, somewhere between the ages of 12 and 14. “I think sometimes I work here as karmic payback for what I put booksellers through” as a customer, Wilkins jokes. He used to bombard U Book Store employees with questions — “when is the next book in this series coming out and when is this book coming out in paperback” and so on. He used to prefer to shop at the Washington Book Store, a competitor across the street from University Book Store that has long since gone out of business. “My mother would give me grief about it,” Duane says, but he offers, by way of explanation, “they carried all the Harlan Ellison books, and University Book Store didn’t.”
Science fiction has appealed to Wilkins since he was in elementary school. He still recalls the book that introduced him to the genre: Robert Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo. From there, he read all the Heinlein he could find, followed quickly by all the sci-fi books in his school library. It wasn’t long before he discovered comics and started attending sci-fi conventions. Wilkins started working at University Book Store in the receiving department in 1983. From there, he joined the night maintenance team and became a cashier. By 1988, he took over the science fiction section — “nobody else wanted it” — and he soon became a buyer for sci-fi and for kids.
After he took charge of it, Wilkins quickly transformed University Book Store’s meager selection into the single best science fiction section in the entire state of Washington. And Wilkins has become Seattle’s sci-fi godfather — authors seek him out for his approval, publishers seek to woo his attention for new titles, and the local sci-fi community reveres him for his years of championship. It’s not uncommon to come across Wilkins’s name in the “thanks” sections of sci-fi novels, and it’s rare to talk to a sci-fi or fantasy author who doesn’t have an adoring story about him.
What, to Wilkins, makes a good science fiction and fantasy section? He likes to see a breadth of stock: “Do they carry the entire Wheel of Time series? Or just a few books from the series?” And he looks to make sure they have more than just the most popular names; not just Neal Stephenson, say, but also Charles DeLint, Jack Vance, and Robin Hobb. “There’s a lot of names I just eyeball” within seconds of entering a bookstore, Wilkins says.
A pivotal moment for Wilkins came early in his career when he helped with a Terry Brooks signing in the store. Brooks, he says, “taught me about how authors should treat their fans.” Wilkins likes authors who “take the time to thank their fans for supporting them. I respect an author who knows that it’s good to treat them well. Nobody comes to a [book signing] saying ‘well, I think your writing sucks but I want to see what you look like.’ They come because they’re fans.” Over the years, he’s met hundreds, maybe thousands, of sci-fi authors, but a few of his encounters still render him starstruck: Ray Bradbury, for instance, was “very quiet and shy,” but Wilkins still found meeting him to be “anxiety-producing.”
Wilkins is a world-class recommender of books. He prides himself on connecting readers with authors they’ll absolutely love. “I have a couple customers come in and tell me [my recommendations are] always right. It’s flattering.” On the other hand, “I had someone come in and tell me I’m right half the time, which was upsetting for me. I like to be in the 90th percentile” when it comes to book recommendations. He likes to read a broad range of subgenres, including “space opera, high fantasy — even urban fantasy/romance, if it’s good enough.”
So what counts to him? “The most important thing is characters.” But he’s also a fan of good worldbuilding, which he equates to an iceberg: “you only see the tiny tip sticking out” of the surface of the novel, he says, but you can tell when an author has thought through the 90 percent of the book’s logic that the readers will never see. And high-quality prose is slightly overrated: “the writing can be average or bad as long as the storytelling is strong. There are writers out there who I won’t name who are brilliant writers, but their stories are bad because nothing ever happens.”
And what’s he been reading lately? “I just finally finished reading Lawrence Schoen’s book Barsk;” he’s excited for this Friday’s event for the anthology Unbound with editor Shawn Speakman and writers including Terry Brooks; Calamity, the third book in Brian Sanderson’s Reckoners series; and Charlie Jane Anders’s debut novel All the Birds in the Sky, which he pitches to me with a personal appeal, saying “I’m assuming you were a nerd, got picked on in high school?” He assures me that however bad I may have had it in high school — moderately bad, for the record — the main characters of Birds had it much worse. He says it was a surprising book, one of those reading experiences that starts as one kind of a book and then changes partway through: “I thought it would be this whole thing, but it’s a whole other category. “ Goes to show, Wilkins says; with some of the best books, “you can’t always tell.” If you read the right books, science fiction/fantasy will always find ways to surprise you.