(Every Monday in December, we're asking a local bookseller which books they'd like to receive for a holiday gift. Our final bookseller is Emma Nichols, who works at Elliott Bay Book Company and who also hosts the wonderful Drunk Booksellers podcast. Emma chose Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders, by Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras.)
I’m really into maps and so the name struck me. But it’s not a book about maps, it’s about weird places all over the world, and I’m very interested in the unknown and the strange.
(Every Monday in December, we're asking a local bookseller which books they'd like to receive for a holiday gift. Our third bookseller is Jason Vanhee who works at University Book Store. Jason chose SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard and Dynasty: the Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, by Tom Holland.)
I work at University Book Store, but I’d been away for a few years and I just came back, so I didn’t see these in hardcover. I am a super-fan of Roman history and I’m really incredibly excited to get one or both of these as gifts. SPQR has been doing gangbusters — we had her for an event; I’m so sad I didn’t get to go, but I was working. I really can't wait to read some new [laughs] — “new” — Roman history.
(Every Monday in December, we're asking a local bookseller which books they'd like to receive for a holiday gift. Our second bookseller is Melissa Barnes, who works at University Book Store. Melissa chose Ada Twist, Scientist, by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts.)
After reading Iggy Peck, Architect and Rosie Revere, Engineer, I was dying to read this one, because the series is wonderful for parents and kids. I think it’s got a great positive message: Even though someone tells you can’t do something, you can. That’s what this book does: it tells this girl’s story, about how she perseveres and becomes a scientist. I think it’s wonderful. I love it a lot.
(Every Monday in December, we're asking a local bookseller which books they'd like to receive for a holiday gift. Our first bookseller is Wesley Minter, who works at Third Place Books Seward Park. Wesley chose Proxies by Brian Blanchfield and In the Empire of the Air by Donald Britton.)
They're both by Nightboat Books, a publisher I've only been aware of for a little while. They started with the collected poems of Tim Dlugos. They're dedicated to lost queer writers with an emphasis on poetry and radical essays and things like that, especially by artists we lost in the AIDS crisis in the 80s. They're committed to the cause of illuminating what we lost in this giant tragedy. So far, every single one is just this previously unknown treasure, and the timber and the tone of each book is wildly different than the last. I'm a huge supporter of what they're putting out. The quality control of the work they're doing in that office — I'm sure it's a very small office — is really impressive.
So far as origin stories go, no superhero ever had a better one.
Rick Simonson was working in the kitchen of a restaurant called Das Gasthaus on Occidental Ave in Pioneer Square. A transplant from Nebraska, Simonson was unsure exactly what he wanted to do with his life, but for the moment he needed a job and the kitchen’s trash needed taking out. As he was lugging out the garbage, Simonson noticed a warm glow from an open door at 109 S. Main St, and so he set down the trash can and peeked inside. He didn’t know it then, but that was a moment that would forever establish the arc of his life.
Inside, Walter Carr was putting books on the shelves of his new business, a bookstore he was calling Elliott Bay Book Company. Even now, Carr tells me, he clearly recalls the moment he first set eyes on Simonson. “Rick, in his very exuberant style, came in and said, ‘wow, a bookstore? I love books!’” Simonson hung around the bookstore for the next few years, working construction and helping seasonally, and nobody was surprised when — 40 years ago this month — he became a full-time bookseller at Elliott Bay.
Carr says Simonson immediately started agitating for Elliott Bay to start a reading series. “From the get-go, we had done events,” he explains, “but we were a one-room bookstore — we had no space to do readings. As the store grew, he kept campaigning for it.” Finally, in fall of 1984, the store had grown enough to incorporate a readings space and Simonson launched the first reading series with a slate of six writers including Ivan Doig.
Simonson kept building outwards from there. “He organized, communicated, and developed a reputation that eventually extended around the world,” Carr says. In the beginning, Simonson focused on young authors who had not built their reputations yet. “I think Amy Tan had her first reading at Elliott Bay,” Carr says, “and she had an upset stomach because she was so nervous.” Through his reading series and his advocacy, Simonson encouraged the careers of young writers like like Louise Erdrich, Raymond Carver, Tess Gallagher, Tom Robbins, and Terry Tempest Williams.
Without Simonson, it’s likely that Seattle would not have the literary reputation that it enjoys today. The reading series that he created — within a couple of years, the series ballooned from a few events a month to a few dozen to a few hundred a year — made Seattle a destination, and the care that Elliott Bay gave to its visiting authors made them intensely loyal to the store. Authors like Kazuo Ishiguro, Arundhati Roy, and Michael Ondaatje have returned to Elliott Bay again and again throughout their literary careers. Novelist Mona Simpson once told John Marshall at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that “Even writers who hate to travel want to go to Seattle” because of Simonson. He brought Salman Rushdie to Seattle at the height of his fatwa-induced seclusion, and Haruki Murakami’s 1997 Seattle reading — a rare stateside appearance from the novelist — only happened because of Simonson’s tenacity.
Without Elliott Bay Book Company’s reading series, which Simonson spent years dreaming up and then still more years cultivating into a world-class program, it’s hard to draw a direct line from the publishing industry in New York City and the relatively obscure pioneer city of Seattle. His passion and his hard work put our city on the literary map. Sonny Mehta, the celebrated editor-in-chief of the prestigious publisher Alfred A. Knopf, told Paula Bock of the Seattle Times in 1997 that Simonson reads as carefully and “as well as any of the colleagues I have in New York, so I have the highest respect for him.”
Chris Higashi, who recently retired as program manager at the Washington Center for the Book, would go a step further. She believes that Simonson helped create the idea of the modern book tour. When Elliott Bay Book Company started their events series, she says, tours “just weren’t happening like that.” She credits Simonson with coming up with “the idea that booksellers could sell more books if they put authors and book buyers together,” and then working with publishers to make those trips worthwhile.
Carr says that Elliott Bay’s reading series became such an asset that at one point Amazon.com founder “Jeff Bezos became very interested in the author series and made some overtures. He talked about trying to coordinate somehow or, as he put it, ‘help’ with the author series.” Carr and Simonson politely declined Bezos's “help.”
New booksellers at Elliott Bay are taught that there’s no such thing as a small reading; even if only two people show up for an event to celebrate a debut novel from a young author, that reading is a worthwhile investment because that author could become the next Michael Chabon or Jhumpa Lahiri, and those authors would likely keep coming back to the store, book after book, year after year. It’s happened hundreds of times over the last four decades; authors stay loyal to Simonson because Simonson was loyal to them.
If you’ve attended more than one reading in Seattle, odds are good that you’ve seen Simonson pushing around a dolly stacked high with boxes of books, and you’ve probably heard at least one of his introductions, which Seattle author Sherman Alexie affectionately described to me as “rambling, soft-spoken, tangential, erudite, affectionate, and odd.” Simonson is remarkably humble, always preferring to give the spotlight over to someone else.
But if you were to attend the annual Book Expo America industry gathering in New York City, you’d see a different side of Simonson: the man is a rock star. When walking the floor at the Javits Center, Simonson often can’t get more than fifteen feet without being accosted by some publisher, author, or big-name editor. As a young bookseller, I once followed Simonson for an afternoon at BEA and I still recall the fevered tenor of a seasoned New York publicist’s voice as she shouted “RICKEEEEEEE!” and ran across the floor at him, basically tackling Simonson in the hopes of pushing an advance copy of a book by a young author into his hands.
Above and beyond the reading series, Simonson is a passionate reader. “Rick has always had a galley waiting for me when I come to the store,” Alexie says. “He's always got a book in mind for my wife and kids, too. And I know he's always ready with a book for other customers — the civilian readers — and not just writers and the families of writers.” Higashi notes with a kind of wonder that Simonson is “still able to delight in finding a new author and a new book.”
When she and Bill Gates Sr. were still dating in the mid-1990s, Mimi Gates recalls that she asked Simonson to help her choose five books about love to give him as a Christmas gift. She recalls the sincerity and thoughtfulness that Simonson put into the effort. Ever since, Gates has relied exclusively on Simonson for recommendations: “His ability to really think deeply about what somebody else is going to enjoy is really magnificent,” Gates says. Because Simonson has been such a wonderful bookseller, Gates tells me that “to this day, I won’t touch a Kindle. Rick would never make me feel obligated or guilty even if I had one, but I am so loyal to him that I will only buy books from Elliott Bay Book Company.” She calls him “one of my favorite Seattleites.”
Seemingly as soon as Simonson established Elliott Bay’s reading series, he began reaching outward into the community. He has always encouraged readings that incorporate Seattle’s African-American and Asian-American communities. In 1999, when Capitol Hill’s Red and Black Books closed, Elliott Bay hired Red and Black bookseller Karen Maeda Allman to work with Simonson on community programming. Allman and Simonson sell books at any number of events around town including Hugo House readings, the Seattle Asian Art Museum’s Saturday University Lecture Series, and the Northwest African American Museum’s reading series.
Alexie praises the fact that “Rick was reading multiculturally and internationally back in the early 90s, long before it was a popular thing to do. He's always been an innovative reader.” In 1988, Simonson guest-edited a Graywolf anthology on the importance of multicultural reading. In 2013, when Simonson was a judge for the National Book Award, several people recall Simonson being honored to serve the NBA, but a little flummoxed because the intensive reading list requirements meant that he wasn’t able to read internationally as much as he’d like.
Simonson has contributed to communities outside of the bounds of Elliott Bay, too. Both Higashi and Gates recall the way Simonson coaxed them to join him on the board of a fledgling Port Townsend nonprofit poetry publisher called Copper Canyon Press. Higashi remembers that when he gave her the pitch, “I said ‘Rick, there’s a problem: I don’t read poetry.’ And he said, ‘well, but you’re a reader.’ He had that instinct and it changed my life. I became a really passionate reader of poetry because of that.” Gates thinks Simonson recommended her for the board because “He thought I knew the publishing business, but I didn’t.” Still, something must have worked: Gates remains on the board to this day.
Central District Forum founder Stephanie Ellis-Smith tells a story about a different kind of board recruitment strategy. In 1999, she was meeting with someone in Elliott Bay’s basement café to discuss her plans to create an organization dedicated to “contemporary African-American culture, humanities, and performing arts.” Simonson was staging the reading room for that evening’s event, but he became distracted by Ellis-Smith’s aspirations.
“Rick had sat down near us,” she says, “and he heard me talking about what I wanted to do with CD Forum. He commandeered the table; he was clearly now in charge. He said, ‘well, tell me what you want me to do because I’ll be on your board.’” Ellis-Smith was new to the city, and she was taken aback by this stranger’s enthusiasm. She recalls, “I said I reserved my right to hold off that decision until I learned more about him.” Then she did her research, and she notes, “Rick’s been on that board ever since — he was there with me, and he’s still on it even after I retired.”
As a board member, Ellis-Smith says Simonson has done nothing but good for CD Forum. “He was indispensable in helping me chart the course through our programming,” she says. “He took his fundraising responsibilities very, very seriously — still does. He has such a strong following and so many people have such respect for him that it was a blessing to have the imprimatur of Rick Simonson. That went a long way for us.” Gates agrees that on Copper Canyon’s board, Simonson has a “broad base of knowledge” that helps the publisher make contact with new communities. At meetings, Gates says, he “doesn’t speak often, but when he does it’s well-taken.”
Since 2000, Simonson’s attentions have extended outward as he’s shifted from a nationally known literary figure to an international one. Simonson has represented the US at literary events in China, Palestine, the United Arab Emirates and, most especially, the Jaipur Literature Festival in India, which he attends every year.
Simonson has always been a fierce advocate for international literature. He shepherded an agreement between India publisher Seagull Books and the University of Chicago Press to distribute their books in the US. “He has brought back books and authors from India that have not been published here,” Higashi says. “He’s extremely well-known among the heads of the Indian publishers.” Simonson was an early advocate of Anuradha Roy, the DSC Prizewinning author of Sleeping on Jupiter, importing copies of her earlier novel An Atlas of Impossible Longing and selling it at Elliott Bay when no American publisher would step up.
Higashi attended Jaipur with Simonson one year, and she says “I saw him do the same thing in India that he does here: You’re in his circle and he stops to introduce you to each person. He remembers all those names.” (Everybody I’ve talked with for this article expressed wonder at Simonson’s memory; he seems to be able to recall names and phone numbers with photographic precision.) In Jaipur, Higashi says, “I watched people respond to him there that I see the way people respond to him in the publishing world in the US. He does it all with such modesty and such generosity.” Ellis-Smith agrees that “Rick belongs and fits in wherever he is because he’s such a true and authentic person, whether he’s hobnobbing at the National Book Awards in a tux or if he’s lugging books back from some event across town.”
This month, Elliott Bay Book Company booksellers will quietly celebrate Simonson’s 40th anniversary as an employee. There won’t be a big, star-studded party, or a series of teary speeches. Instead, they’ll just keep doing the work, side-by-side, connecting authors and readers, bringing Seattle communities together, and sharing stories from hand to hand.
Everyone I talked to for this piece remarked on Simonson’s humility, his eagerness to pass the microphone to others. “I think Rick has changed very little in his personality in the time that I have known him,” Higashi says, “in the sense that he’s never made this work be about him.” Gates agrees: “he never promotes himself.” Alexie concludes, simply, “I love the dude.”
Simonson has been acknowledged for his hard work. In the late 1990s, he received the Nancy Blackenship Pryor Award from the governor of Washington, which cited his “passion” and “generosity,” as well as his support of “authors for their talents rather than their ability to sell.” He has been the subject of profiles in just about every major Seattle-area publication. But none of those accolades seem to fully encompass Simonson’s role in the history of Seattle’s ascendance. The city has grown with and alongside Simonson — from an enthusiastic little town to a city of national importance to a player in the global community.
“When you go to a reading, there is a sense of that kind of conversation that is integral to a sense of community and a sense of place,” Simonson told Seattle magazine’s Nicholas O’Connell in a 1996 profile. Few people have been as integral to Seattle’s sense of community and place over the last forty years than Rick Simonson.
I arrived in Seattle on May 4th, 2000. I applied for a job at Elliott Bay Book Company two days later. My first day at Elliott Bay Book Company was May 15th. I cannot express how important being hired at Elliott Bay was for me, what it did for my life. I had worked at a Borders in Boston for years, but Elliott Bay was, quite obviously, something different. It was more serious than Borders, felt more like a place of worship. While customers at Borders always treated booksellers with scorn, the customers were nicer, more deferential to booksellers at Elliott Bay; they respected our knowledge and were interested in what we had to say. And the reading series, with an average of at least one event per day, meant that even the newest booksellers interacted with world-class authors. (On May 17th, I worked at a Sherman Alexie reading from The Toughest Indian in the World at Town Hall Seattle. He was incredibly gracious to all the booksellers. I also worked readings with Chuck Palahniuk, Dave Eggers, and David Sedaris that year, all of whom were almost impossibly nice.)
There is an understanding when you come to work at Elliott Bay that you’re working at one of the best bookstores in the world. And though the pay was not remarkable — better than Borders, but in line with non-commission retail work — you got to spend your days in one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. (And the 40 percent staff discount and endless supply of free advance reader’s copies probably saved me thousands of dollars a year in book purchases I would’ve made if I worked anywhere else.)
Because it’s not tied to a corporate chain, it’s very easy for booksellers to make their mark at Elliott Bay. Humans, and not algorithms, order the books that make up the store. Sections are always evolving and growing. It’s not uncommon for a bookseller at Elliott Bay to champion a book so passionately that a publisher will order a new printing of the title based on the sales bump out of Seattle. Publishers will court Elliott Bay booksellers because they understand how much their approval means.
More than the books on the shelves, the people make the bookstore what it is: though Elliott Bay always has its share of enthusiastic young staffers, many booksellers have been with the store for decades. Store manager Tracy Taylor has led Elliott Bay through three owners, the Mardi Gras Riots of 2001, the Nisqually Earthquake, and the move from Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill. Receiving manager Erica Dorfman has shepherded uncountable millions of pounds of books through the store. Rick Simonson founded the reading series and has overseen its growth with Karen Maeda Allman, formerly of Red and Black Books. Head buyer Holly Myers has passionately tended to the kids’ section for decades. Store owner Peter Aaron dedicated his life to the vision that Walter Carr brought into the world over four decades ago; he kept the store alive when nobody else would, and his decision to move Elliott Bay to Capitol Hill breathed new life (financial and conceptual) into the business.
I’m obviously biased, but Elliott Bay is, to my mind, the best bookstore in the world. Plenty of people swoon over Powell’s, but I’ve always thought it to be just too damn big. I’ve lost days to browsing the stacks at Powell’s, but I just can’t wrap my head around the store because there’s too much of it. Elliott Bay is big enough to get lost in but just small enough to comprehend. It’s human-sized, and in an age when you can get whatever you want online, that curation is important.
The selection at Elliott Bay is obviously huge, but it’s also stocked with the right books, chosen and shelved by a human being who loves books. That’s not the kind of thing you can quantify, but it is something you can recognize when you see it. When a book comes to you through the hands of so many good people, that book somehow carries more value. It gives the book a continuity and it gives the reader a community. This is the kind of power that can change a life.
Our November Bookstore of the Month, Elliott Bay Book Company, is a store that prides itself on its history and its strong sense of continuity. But not everyone at Elliott Bay has worked there for decades. New booksellers start at the store all the time, and they make their mark pretty quickly. Mary Thompson started at Elliott Bay in mid-June. It’s her first bookstore job, though not her first literary job — she worked at the Hugo House doing front desk and events assistance before getting into bookselling.
Thompson works in the fiction and fitness sections, as well as helping with magazines, internet orders, and the readings team. What does she think of working at Elliott Bay so far? “I like the creative aspect,” she says. “I love writing and it seemed like being surrounded by books was a good option; Elliott Bay was kind of a second home. It made sense to work here.”
As a student at Seattle U, Thompson was interested largely in 20th century classics like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Working at Elliott Bay has made her aware of a whole contemporary universe of writers she never before gave much attention. “My interest in graphic novels is a lot higher than it used to be,” she says, for example. “Working at Elliott Bay, I feel like I’m just consuming so much. There’s a list of books growing that will never be completed.”
What books has she discovered since working there? She’s especially excited about Eileen, the novel by Otessa Moshfegh, which she calls “amazing.” “It’s all the things I’ve always liked about novels — it’s surprising and has such a unique voice.” Thompson likes that Eileen is “dark and its funny,” and that it features “a female narrator like I’ve never read before. It’s disgusting and morbid and I love it.” For graphic novels, she’s been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther and The Arab of the Future and The Arab of the Future 2 by Riad Sattouf.
This is the time of year when Elliott Bay employees are asked to choose a handful of books to recommend for holiday gifts. Thompson picked Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Decisive Moment, a reissued version of a book by “the original street photographer.” She admits that it’s an “extravagant choice,” a huge and expensive book, but “if you’re gonna get someone a big gift, I think it’s the way to go,” Thompson says, calling it “the most beautiful book I’ve ever seen.”
Another book she chose to promote for the holidays originally seemed “too dark and too sinister” for the time, Thompson explains, but “now it seems the perfect choice:” James Thurber’s The Tiger Who Would Be King, illustrated by Joohee Yoon. “It’s about a tiger who wants to be king of the jungle and throws a coup, and everybody dies in it. It’s supposed to be funny, but it doesn’t seem very funny now. it just seems very stark and dark.” Thompson says its message, that “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” proved to be more apt than she expected.
Thompson is from a suburban California town. In 2008, the local Borders closed, and no new bookstore opened to take its place. She had to travel “far away” to get to a bookstore. That makes working at Elliott Bay a special kind of privilege for Thompson. “Just in general, the fact that it’s been around so long is phenomenal to me,” she says. “Seeing people who’ve lived here all their lives and know it as their neighborhood bookstore” is a rewarding feeling. She’s part of a community with roots, and she’s adding to that community’s future every day.
Elliott Bay Book Company is not the city’s oldest bookstore — University Book Store is older, by over a half-century — but it is arguably our most iconic. Founded in 1973, Elliott Bay has changed ownership three times. The shop was founded and expanded in its original Pioneer Square location by Walter and Maggie Carr. When the Carrs retired, they sold the shop to Third Place Books owner Ron Sher in 1999. Third Place partner Peter Aaron bought the bookstore from Sher a few years later, making it fully independent once more.
In 2010, after a long decline in sales, the store moved from its original location to a Ford truck repair shop on Capitol Hill. Though many in Seattle lamented the loss of the old, sprawling space — the store had expanded outward through the years, taking up other storefronts on the same block and creating a unique, rambling feel — Aaron and Elliott Bay manager Tracy Taylor went to great lengths to make the transition as familiar as possible. The old handmade cedar bookshelves from the Pioneer Square store were dismantled and reassembled in the new space, retaining an important continuity in the visual language of the store. In the years since the move, Elliott Bay has enjoyed some of its most profitable years in the history of the business. Foot traffic on Capitol Hill has significantly shaped Elliott Bay’s new direction: the kids’ section, for instance, expanded hugely thanks to the influx of young parents visiting in the first few months after the move.
If you were to combine the experience of senior Elliott Bay staff, you’d quickly tally up a few centuries of bookselling. Elliott Bay has always celebrated its talented booksellers through an enormous Staff Recommends wall, an extensive book club program, and the staff-written Booknotes newspaper. It has gained a reputation for training some of the best booksellers in the business.
The thing that makes Elliott Bay such a nationally recognized institution, though, is the reading series. University Book Store and Third Place Books both have robust readings schedules but Elliott Bay hosts an average of more than one event for every single day of the year, and has kept up this demanding schedule for decades. Big-name authors who have appeared at Elliott Bay events include Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie (making a rare appearance at the heat of the fatwa that kept him in hiding), Joan Didion, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. But Elliott Bay has also shepherded authors from the very beginning of their careers, promoting their books with events when no other bookstore would.
In the next few weeks, we’re going to talk with booksellers about what makes Elliott Bay so special and what’s in store for the future of the bookstore. And I hope you’ll join the Seattle Review of Books for a special free reading at Elliott Bay this Friday, when Sherman Alexie — himself an author who has been reading at Elliott Bay since before he was, well, Sherman Alexie — presents Robert Lashley and EJ Koh, two writers who will no doubt be reading at Elliott Bay for years to come.
As Louis Collins and I discuss his nearly half-century in the book business, it’s impossible for me to not take notice of his goofy blue sweatshirt, which reads “I TOOK THE PLUNGE! SPA HOT SPRINGS MOTEL WHITE SULFUR SPRINGS, MT.” Collins, the owner of our September Bookstore of the Month, Louis Collins Books, comes across as eminently comfortable in his own skin; he seems happy with his lot in life.
Collins frequently shops in other bookstores around Seattle. You might be surprised by some of his favorites; for example, he still laments the closing of the Capitol Hill Half Price Books, which he thought was pretty good for browsing. The location was outperforming its sales goals, Collins says, and only closed because the rent was increased beyond a sustainable level.
So what does he like to read? He begins with the most common booksellers’ refrain: “I read everything.” Then he narrows it down: “I like to read history. I love anthropology detective stories like Tony Hillerman.” Collins is a fan of mysteries that insert readers into other cultures and provide real information; he calls Hillerman “one of the best,” for instance, because when reading one of his mysteries, he learned the difference between the Navajo and Hopi peoples.
The only kind of books Collins isn’t crazy about? Textbooks. “I like to read overviews of things,” he says. He mentions James Gleick’s book Chaos as a perfect example of his favorite kind of reading experience, authors who can provide “an amateur’s view of something in an intelligent way.”
Collins seems happy to have spent his life with books. He admits that at one time not so long ago, if someone came to him with an offer, he’d have “walked out of here with a suitcase” immediately, but now that he’s training a successor to take over, he’s enjoying the business again. “With Bill coming in, the business works. Doing it all myself was unpleasant, but working with somebody who is involved with it and would like to take it to the next level” makes it all rewarding again. Collins, in short, has found his groove again.
In the nearly five decades that Louis Collins has been selling books, he’s seen the book business completely transform itself. “I started off cataloguing books, sending out-of-print and hard-to-find books, mostly to institutions” out of his office in San Francisco he tells me. “In those days before the internet there was a magazine called the AB Bookman’s Weekly,” which served as a marketplace of rare and out-of-print books and a central meeting-place for the used bookselling community. Like many other booksellers, at the time, Collins listed all his books in catalogs, which libraries would then order from him.
“The reason I got into the book business was I have a memory,” Collins says. “Somebody would ask me ‘do you have such and such book’ and I’d either know I had it there or I’d say, ‘I saw that over in Berkeley or Oakland yesterday and I can get it for you.'” He served as a network for books, a kind of human Google with a good knowledge of books that were available around the country. People used him as a resource to track down books they’d spent their lives looking for.
Even today, “I have a really physical photographic sense of the books,” Collins says. When an order comes in on his site for a specific title, “I know exactly what it looks like and I go to the shelves and pick it up.” The books in his shop — our October Bookstore of the Month – are arranged by subject, but “not necessarily in alphabetic order.” Collins has adjusted well to the turnover to the internet — which he says hit a tipping point in the year 2000.
Bookselling has changed a lot over the last sixteen years. Some online retailers drive the cost of common used books down through automatic pricing until they’re at rock bottom — it’s not uncommon to see used booksellers drive prices down “from 59 dollars to like a penny,” in a week. How do they make money on books for a penny? “They just do volume and they get a break on the shipping because they send so much out that they get a discount from the post office,” Collins says. “I might have to pay 3 dollars for a book, and they probably pay 90 cents. Then they sell that book for a penny, charge $3.99 shipping and make $2” on the transaction. To cut costs even further, a lot of these booksellers get their stock from those book donation bins you’ll find in grocery store parking lots.
But the shift to computers was a transition he was not unprepared for — Collins believes he was the first bookseller in Seattle to have a website. “I liked the idea of computers,” Colins tells me. “In ‘93 or ‘94, I actually got a computer for the first time” to keep track of stock. As a result, Louis Collins Books is a profitable business, one which he’s training a young bookseller named Bill to take over when Collins decides he’s done with the business. But that moment doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon. “I’m still excited to go out and make contacts and buy new collections,” Collins says.
Our October Bookstore of the Month, Louis Collins Books, is in a bright blue building at the intersection of 12th and Denny. Collins has been selling books out of this building for decades, and he’s been in the book business for nearly 50 years. Since he does most of his business online, Louis Collins Books is only open for browsing by appointment. I’d urge you to make an appointment: it’s a beautiful space, completely taken over by used and rare books. But unlike the chaos of some used bookstores, everything in Louis Collins Books seems highly organized.
Collins lives in the building, and he invites me back into his kitchen, which is also lined with books, for an interview. “The front of the store is all general art and literature and all that," he explains. “Back here is anthropology, Alaskan history, obscure archaeology texts, ethnomusicology, that kind of thing.”
Collins buys most of his books in the form of personal libraries — and many of the libraries he’s buying these days, he notes, have been bought in pieces over the years at Louis Collins Books. He points over at three shelves in the corner of the kitchen. “I bought a wonderful collection from a woman who specialized in the folk songs of southeast Asia,” Collins says. The collection used to take up a couple whole bookshelves in the kitchen, but after he made the books available to his online customers, it’s now down to a few shelves.
Walking around Louis Collins Books, you’ll see a number of books you simply can’t find anywhere else. If you were to survey random people on the street, most of them would likely say that every book ever published exists online. That’s not anywhere close to true. Collins estimates that when he enters his collection into online databases, nearly half of his books aren’t available at any other online retailers. Finding those one-of-a-kind titles seems to be a source of great pride for him.
I ask Collins if he likes shopping at any local bookstores. Unequivocally, the answer is yes. “This is a great book town, and it’s always had great bookstores here,” Collins says. When he was a rare and antiquarian bookseller in San Francsisco, he used to make book-buying trips to Seattle to replenish his supply. “There have always been very good customers here, too,” he says.
But is it hard to find rare books in a part of the world that’s had books in it for less than two centuries? Collins says Seattle has always been home to impressive book collectors, and when you look back to shipping manifests from the city’s earliest days, you’ll find large shipments of books from England arriving in the city on a regular basis. This is a city that has always embraced book-lovers. In his little blue shop on Capitol Hill, Collins is continuing a long tradition of Seattle-based sellers of rare and unique books.
Well-versed in the contents of his shop and the world of books, a recommendation from David is a valuable gift. He went straight from high school to bookselling and has held his current position as caretaker of Lion Heart Book Store for 15 years. In a half-serious, half-joking tone (leaving the facts amusingly uncertain), he explained that his father offered him three choices after high school: he’d send him to vet school, send him to prison, or help him start a bookstore.
Luckily for us the third option won, and now you have a list of recommendations for autumn and an excuse not to leave home. David recommends: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, and The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. His favorite book is Candide, which, like his own life, he says, deals with finding love, disappointing young ladies, and searching for the philosophy of life.
Although Pike Place houses several amazing bookstores, Lion Heart is the crown jewel. Cared for by an involved owner and standing at the heart of the market, it pumps energy through the several crowded floors and lengthy hallways of Pike Place. Visited by locals and tourists alike, by literary aficionados and surface browsers, the shop lives in the best of all possible worlds, acting as a trading post for stories both verbal and written.
4,800 miles away, my new home in London boasts an incredible literary scene. There are several bookstores in my neighborhood and countless more in Central London. They are historic, quaint, and some even famous, yet none compare to the underground nook by Puget Sound. No owner leaps from their desk to help (elderly British booksellers can’t be bothered), no customer rambles about their life, and no one sends postcards from their travels the way people do for David. The only thing I’ve found to be on par with Lion Heart Book Store is the talk of the weather and the rustle of raincoats as people shuffle past each other in the I-want-to-look-at-the-shelf-you’re-in-front-of dance.
I walked a few miles through Central London, stopping by several bookstores — most of them on Charing Cross Road — to get my books for this semester, a Harry Potter-esque experience of walking through cobblestone alleys with bags full of school supplies (sans owl, sadly). These tiny old bookstores are majestic and breathtaking, usually full of beautiful Jane Austen editions and Shakespeare compilations. But there’s the key difference: London bookstores pride themselves in their content, while Lion Heart Book Store sees the importance of the people that visit.
London bookstores are city fixtures, impassive to the comings-and-goings of tourists, while Lion Heart changes for and with its customers. Although there is a beauty in the static existence of century-old bookstores here, Lion Heart reflects the livelihood of Pike Place Market and the changing scene in Seattle. Already the fifth incarnation of the shop since its establishment in 1961, it’s exciting to see where it will go and how it will continue to interact with the people who visit it.
Lion Heart Book Store houses an eclectic collection of volumes, keeping the shelves as interesting as their owner and visitors. The turnover is fast, too — titles come and go as everyone who visits finds something that intrigues them. The most popular books come from the fiction section, but people ask for a great variety of titles, editions, and genres. The mystery section is always well-stocked, with paperbacks stuffed into narrow shelves with no wiggle room. On the opposite wall of the store, by the entryway, is a scarce-but-growing children’s section. David is making the effort to start a Spanish section among the kids’ books, which further highlights his passion for people, for diversity and culture, and for being a part of something bigger.
Inside the shop there is almost certainly something for everyone. And if you don’t know what you want, talk to David for a few seconds and he’ll lead you to a book. There are racks of pocket poetry, assorted cards and artsy postcards, and trendy picks like adult coloring books. Bestsellers and classics stand on a small central table — copies of The Boys in the Boat, Pride and Prejudice, and Cannery Row. Vonnegut, clearly a favorite, lines the counter and displays, making the space even more lively with the vibrant and colorful book covers. Two tall glass cases stand at the end of the bookshelves, which are slim in size but not in pickings. These cases, containing fragile old books and small figurines, are a nod to David’s previous books and antiques store in Lake City.
While some of the books come from customers, David orders most of them, always careful to curate the selection to please visitors. I once visited as he was unpacking new arrivals, sorting through stacks of boxes in the small space behind the counter. With his amazing energy he unpacks, recommends, and entertains as he moves around his store. What results from his consideration is a perfectly varied selection that caters to every need. There are John Green novels, books about Seattle and Pike Place Market for souvenirs, quick reads for a plane ride, and obscure unheard-of titles. If you’re searching for the next item on your to-read list or don’t know what to gift someone, a visit to Lion Heart Book Store will not disappoint.
On my second visit to Lion Heart Book Store, I overheard David entertaining a small audience with a story involving a large caterpillar on an expensive rug. Like with many customers, he remembered me and greeted me by name. Lion Heart Book Store is full of stories, but not only from David’s life and the books that surround him. Visitors seem eager to share their own stories: they tell him about their book collections, their jobs, their favorite novels, their pipe dreams. He listens, he jokes, he relates, but more importantly he shows he cares. He reads people so well he seems psychic (“My mother says I have psychotic powers,” he jokes in his singsong voice) — correctly guessing my dad’s profession and that a woman in the store hailed from Michigan. Love and people are two incredibly important things for this animated shop caretaker, so it only makes sense that my request for a memorable customer story elicited two in-store proposal tales. The stories received several “awwws" from the browsing visitors, punctuated by David’s sung punchline: “If I can’t find love, at least I can help others!”
In front of the cash register leans a small whiteboard titled, “Before I Die I Want To…” Visitors use the marker on the counter and write out their goals and aspirations. Once, a man wrote he wanted to marry and grow old with his girlfriend — writing her name on the board — and wandered between the rows of books. She came up to the counter, saw the whiteboard, and looked at David, who simply nodded. And the two were engaged. The second story takes place in a corner of the store, when a man taped a ring to the inside of a book and proposed.
This tiny whiteboard is but one of several aspects in Lion Heart that show how important customers are and makes an effort to include them, turning every person into an involved visitor rather than a passive browser. The bulky binder of postcards is another testimony, as is David’s attentiveness when finding books for people. He takes everything into consideration when recommending titles. For me, he browsed the shelves, musing, “I’m trying to think of something you’ll like but is different. This one is too heavy for your travels.” Impressed by his thoughtfulness, I soon saw each person receives the same unique attention. He seems to know every last book in his shop, adopting the role of matchmaker and marrying customers with novels. It’s evident this is an important task for him as he looks over spines and covers, singing, “Once you find the right book you will flyyyyyy like a biiiiiiird.”
It is the love for people that places Lion Heart Book Store on the same level as the other shops he respects and admires. Being a part of the Pike Place Market scene allows for unique experiences that other stores aren’t as fortunate to have. Some stories involve following bloody footprints to the bathroom, but to David, being in the market means being surrounded by families and owners who pour their heart into their stores and what they do: it’s not a corporate atmosphere where the face behind a storefront changes daily. Naturally, books are the essence of a bookstore, but in the words of Lion Heart’s amazing owner, “Can you imagine a bookstore without people?”
David welcomed me with a booming, melodic voice the second my foot crossed the threshold. He sings greetings to every visitor who enters Lion Heart Book Store. The space is crammed but tidy, with tables by the entrance and narrow spaces between the shelves. Laminated handwritten signs label the main sections, starting with children’s and YA books by the front door. As you move toward the back the signs take you to literature/poetry/plays and end in the $2 pocket mysteries section, always full of worn paperbacks. Racks of postcards, notebooks, and pocket poetry editions stand throughout the store, which has been tucked in the lower level of Pike Place Market since 1961. David is now the fifth caretaker of the store, having taken over in 2001 and renaming it, just as those before him did.
"And that’s what we are," he explains, "caretakers. We take care of people." This philosophy really manifested itself during my first visit to the shop as David reacted to what smelled like a gas leak. As customers sniffed the air and glanced around, he ran to switch off the lights in the emptying store, called maintenance, shook my hand, and thanked me by name in the dim front of the store, telling me to visit again soon.
Before taking on Lion Heart Book Store, David used to own a little store in Lake City that sold books and antiques. He stopped by the bookstore in Pike Place one day, then Mr. E’s Books, and talked to the owner about his need for a better location. He went back that night and signed the paperwork to take over the store. Besides caring for people, David cares immensely for the store and the Market that houses it. He shared another philosophy of his: “Instead of complaining about the problem, be the problem. Get involved to solve it.” It is because of this mindset that the community elected him to be on the Pike Place Market Preservation & Development Authority (PDA) council. With a caretaker that believes wealth comes from love, the store and its surroundings are undoubtedly in good hands.
Those who feel his energy brighten their day or simply appreciate Lion Heart Book Store as the highlight of their trip send David notes and cards. A heavy binder sits on the counter, filled with postcards from customers’ homes and travels. There are long notes and short ones; some thanking him for a recommendation and some just saying hello; some from Indonesia, Finland, Australia, Italy, and Mexico. With dreams and plans of travel, David experiences various parts of the world through his customers' thoughtfulness, which in turn reveal the special friendship he develops with his visitors.
On any given visit, David sits behind the counter telling jokes and personal tales. He exudes charisma and a genuine interest in his customers, asking where they’re from and recommending titles. His electric demeanor is peppered by moments of seriousness during which he imparts lines of wisdom left and right to anyone who might be listening. "What is the secret of the universe? Anyone? The secret is to make someone happyyy," he sings. "Wake up in the morning and make your parents happy."
Just a short visit to the store reveals how important the shop’s visitors are. An incredible number and variety of people wander in and out at any time of day, milling around as they discover new corners of the Market. Visitors range in ages and come from across the lake, across the country, and across the world — and every one is welcomed and cheerfully received.
Christy McDanold had shopped at Greenlake’s Secret Garden Bookshop, although she wouldn’t call herself a regular. But when in January of 1995 she got a notice from the store announcing a going-out-of-business sale, she decided to get into the bookstore business. She’d never owned, worked at, or even considered the economics of running a bookstore before, but throughout the winter and into the spring she kept “talking and thinking about it.” She didn’t have any real credentials for bookstore ownership. “I went to 29,000 banks,” she says, adding, “I’m only exaggerating a little bit.” They all rejected her. Finally, one woman named Sean at Seafirst Bank was willing to take a chance on McDanold, and she successfully bought Secret Garden.
The physical store had already closed, but McDanold was convinced that the Secret Garden name and reputation was worth the effort of basically rebuilding it from the ground up. Most of the calls she fielded between the store’s closure and resurrection “were about the doggone bricks.” Everybody wanted to buy Secret Garden’s iconic bricks if they weren’t going to be used, but McDanold assured the inquirers that the bricks would remain an integral part of the reopened bookstore.
As spring gave way to summer, McDanold found herself in a race against time. After many weeks of searching, she found a space in Ballard, but the store had to open by June 12th, when Secret Garden’s previous owner had arranged to bring A Wrinkle in Time author Madeleine L'Engle to town. “I met with [publisher] reps at our kitchen table while my husband built the space out” over the course of a few weeks.
They made it, just barely. Secret Garden’s grand reopening in Ballard was headlined by L’Engle. “That was a lovely day,” McDanold says. “Madeleine was wonderful and gracious. At that point she was in her 80s and we put her in a rocking chair and people kind of knelt in front of her,” which McDanold said gave the appearance of L’Engle’s readers “worshipping at her feet. She was delightful.”
There have been a lot of good days since then. In 2000, the shop moved to the former Crown Books space on Market Street — where it still stands today — and it started carrying grown-up books along with kids’ titles. Ask McDanold to name some of her favorite moments, and it’s basically a highlights reel of children’s literature from the last two decades. For instance, when the store brought Redwall author Brian Jacques to town “we had a line around the block,” she says.
All of the Harry Potter release nights “were so much fun.” McDanold remembers the first time Scott Simon raved about the Potter books on NPR, “we could almost hear the metaphorical tires screeching” as cars pulled to the side of the road and owners called the store to reserve copies. J.K. Rowling came to town before the second Potter book was published in the United States, and McDanold recalls her promising to never license out Harry Potter toys or movies. “I can’t imagine how hard it was for her” to shoulder the demands of that kind of Beatles-like global popularity, McDanold says, “so I’m not cross with her” for going back on her word.
But most of all, the relationships she’s built at Secret Garden have made the whole endeavor worthwhile. McDanold is especially proud of all “the young people that have come through as booksellers who have gone on to be fabulous grown-ups. “ She says “we’ve had Secret Garden babies and weddings.” When McDanold talks to strangers about being a bookseller, “they say, ‘oh, you must really love books.’ But people who just love books and who can’t throw their arms around people don’t make it in this business.” Between the booksellers, the readers, the kids, the publishers, and the authors, she says, she’s spent time with “the swellest people ever.”
Thinking back to those early days in 1995, McDanold seems almost surprised by her own tenacity. “I don’t think I’ve ever been as single-minded” as she was about buying Secret Garden, she says. “I just knew I wanted to do this. It was kind of nutso.” Her husband Scot had always dreamed about putting the whole family on a sailboat and living at sea, and in her obsessive ambition to purchase the bookstore, McDanold hadn’t realized that she was changing her family’s ambitions forever.
“One evening I was like, ‘oh, honey what have I done?’ And he said, ‘don’t worry about it. I’ve never been prouder of you.” McDanold never doubted that for a second. “He was a good husband. He never turned back, he never regretted it. Ultimately he came to work in the store and we had a couple of great years,” she says. The shop that he helped build continues in that spirit today, and will continue for years to come.
If you’ve published a kids’ book and you live in Seattle, the odds are good that you’ve been to Secret Garden Books. Either you’ve stopped by and introduced yourself because you know they have a rapt audience of children who pay close attention to their recommendations, or they’ve hosted your book launch party. The fact is, though Seattle is home to many terrific bookstore sections for young readers — Elliott Bay Book Company’s children’s section improved exponentially when the store moved from Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill; University Book Store has always had an incredibly diverse selection of titles and an adoring staff — Secret Garden is the city’s headquarters for children’s literature.
Secret Garden has had a long and mutually beneficial relationship with the western Washington chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), an international organization which “acts as a network for the exchange of knowledge between writers, illustrators, editors, publishers, agents, librarians, educators, booksellers and others involved with literature for young people.” Secret Garden booksellers attend monthly meetings of the SCBWI and engage in book talk with members on a regular basis. Agents and art directors from the New York publishing industry drop by meetings to keep in touch with the local chapter and to see what Secret Garden booksellers are loving these days.
Secret Garden’s events coordinator, Suzanne Perry, says the local chapter of the SCBWI “is the best one in the country.” It’s a very active organization that hosts meetups, webinars, and serves as a resource for all the readings, classes, and networking opportunities that local writers and artists and lovers of children’s literature need to know.
Why is the western Washington SCBWI so strong? Probably because the Seattle area is home to a large number of fantastic children’s book authors and illustrators. Perry has so many Seattle-area favorites she has to stop our interview every few minutes to add someone she forgot. She cites “super, super, super strong authors” like Martha Brockenbrough, Justina Chen Headley, Dana Sullivan, and Ben Clanton. Perry also likes an up-and-coming author named Kim Baker, adding “she only has one middle grade book out now, but she’s got a great future ahead of her.”
Perry is on a roll. “You know who I really love? I love Kevin Emerson,” she says. The local author has “put out like 15 books. He’s amazing. I think his storytelling is just top-notch, and I wish he would get the attention he deserves.” Emerson is a prolific writer of YA fiction who loves writing for kids, and Secret Garden has been ardently promoting his books from the very beginning. Perry says his novel Breakout, about a young musician who is torn about how rebellious his rock band should be, is a real “passion project” that deserves a much wider audience.
Is there anyone Perry doesn’t like? She says there was a local children’s author who published a book for adults. That by itself is no problem, but she says that when he was writing the adult book, “he was going around saying he was writing a real book, and I stopped loving him.” The moral of the story: children's books are every bit as real as books for adults, and don't you forget it.
While our August Bookstore of the Month, Secret Garden Books, does host plenty of events in its Ballard storefront, most of the events on its robust readings calendar can’t be attended by your average adult Seattleite. “What we do mostly with events is school visits,” Secret Garden’s events manager Suzanne Perry tells me. She calls the school events “one of my favorite parts” of the job, event though “we don’t publicize them and people don’t know we do them.”
Secret Garden frequently brings authors and book sales to schools around Seattle. For a long time, they did events at high schools and middle schools, but now they mostly bring books to elementary schools and even preschools. The reason is a practical one: you can’t trust older kids to remember to do their part. “For a school visit to work,” Perry explains, “you have to send a presale flier home [with the students] and they have to remember it and they have to bring it back on that day.” It’s a lot to ask of a teenage audience.
What are some of Perry’s favorite Secret Garden events with visiting authors? “Mo Willems at the Central Library was a big one for us,” she says. “He was just kind of like a national superstar” at the time of the reading. Secret Garden has hosted its share of big-name national and international authors, and they’ve had a lot of fun with them, but Perry says that ultimately “for us, the watersheds were ones where we liked the book and nobody else on the planet liked the book” because they didn’t know about it yet.
One example of Secret Garden’s early discoveries: Frank Portman, the author of the King Dork series of books. “We were the first people that liked the book,” Perry says. Secret Garden was such an advocate for Portman that “his agent sent him to Seattle” just based on the strength of Secret Garden’s sales.
Other highlights: “It was fun when Graeme Base came to the Ballard Public Library and the people who came out for him were total hipster stoner kids,” Perry says. “It seemed like he was expecting kids, but the people who came out for the reading were twentysomethings.”
And “a watershed for me was bringing David Levithan to Ballard High School.” Levithan was reading “a totally inappropriate story,” Perry says, a short story called “Smoking” that she says was “all about how sexy smoking is.” The room fell hard for it: “You could’ve dropped a pin,” Perry says. “I thought all these librarians and teachers would kill me, but they loved it.”
Her favorite part of the whole reading experience isn’t on stage at all. Perry says during school readings, especially, when you look into the audience and see the way the kids look at the authors, you can watch an inspirational moment unfold on their faces. “You can see the kids sit there and go, ‘I could have that life. I could do that.’” She says it’s a moment unlike any other: “just the recognition that they could have a creative life,” Perry says, is a big deal.
Founded in Green Lake by children’s book author Nancy White Carlstrom in 1977 — she’s best-known for the Jesse Bear series — Secret Garden Books moved to 15th Ave NW in Ballard before eventually settling in to its current location on Market Street. Secret Garden has always been known first and foremost as a children’s bookstore, but when New York bookseller Susan Scott moved to town after over a decade at fabled NYC store Books & Co, she took over the buying and brought in what staffers delightfully refer to as “grownup books.” In the last few years, the clientele at Secret Garden has changed with Ballard’s demographics; now the store sells more “grownup books” than kids’ books. The store’s art section has grown with the adultification of its customer base, too, and staff has gradually learned about visual art and literary fiction as customers have led them in that direction.
Secret Garden currently employs 13 booksellers. Events manager Suzanne Perry explains that for as long as she’s been on staff, the store has always employed exactly one male bookseller. “We’ve always, always, always had one boy,” she says. “It’s not purposeful. I’ve been here ten years and I think we’re on boy four. And they’re interesting boys, too. But the rest are just women, wall-to-wall.” (I chat with The Boy on Staff after talking with Perry, and he admits that he sometimes feels nervous when management interviews another male for an open position.) Secret Garden’s booksellers tend to stay on staff for a good long while. Perry says there’s really only one qualification they look for when hiring: they want people who “you can’t get them to shut up about books. In fact, you have to pay them to be quiet about books.”
The store regularly hosts readings and activities for kids. But many people outside Ballard don’t know that Secret Garden also hosts two very successful book clubs — one for kids and one for adults. “Book clubs are just my favorite thing in the whole world,” Perry says. She heads up the adult chapter, which meets on the third Thursday of every month. “Our book club is awesome,” she says, because it follows one simple rule. “We strictly talk about the book — the literary merits of the book. No personal talk, no comparing it to your own life, none of that bullshit.”
Secret Garden is known for the brick floor of its kid’s section right at the front of the store. The bricks are tightly packed but not mortared together, creating a clickety-clack cobblestone sound whenever anyone walks on them. The bricks and their ambiance have been part of the Secret Garden experience from the very beginning, and authors now sign individual bricks when they read at the store. Perry recalls a time when Twilight author Stephenie Meyer was in the store: “She walked on the bricks and they did not make a sound.” “I poked her in the ribs,” she says, and asked Meyer how she managed to stay silent. “She giggled” in response and then her footsteps started clickety-clacking like everyone else. Perry’s not saying Meyer is supernatural or anything, but she does note that her “skin was a little glittery.”
(UPDATE 4:14 PM: This post has been updated because like an idiot, I got the identity of the author wrong in the last paragraph. It was not Elizabeth Eulberg; it was Stephenie Meyer. Obviously, the story makes a lot more sense this way.)
You can have the best-stocked bookstore in the world, but without booksellers it would be nearly useless. In fact, a bookstore exists in that space where the booksellers and literature intersect. We need them to direct us to books — classics, rarities, backlist, brand-new bestsellers — and explain why we should be interested in them.
The new team of booksellers at Seward Park’s Third Place Books bring decades of bookselling experience to the neighborhood, along with a few new booksellers. And you can tell a lot about the bookstore by the books that this staff recommends. Without a single booksellers’ recommendation, how could you possibly recognize the thread that connects Joy Kogawa’s Obasan to Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age? And in a scene as overrun with novelty as comics, you need a bookseller to recommend Top Ten, Alan Moore and Gene Ha’s superhero/cop show pastiche, or else it would be lost in the gaudy flash of the graphic novel shelves.
Look at the books recommended by Third Place Books Seward Park’s Anje. There’s something here for everyone, from a trilogy of great genre page-turners — Beat the Reaper, The Martian, and Lock In — to more serious fare including Rebecca Solnit’s essential feminist manifesto Men Explain Things to Me to Nate Powell’s marvelous comics and the more cerebral sci-fi of Margaret Atwood and Ann Leckie, Anyone could find something to love in this eclectic shelf’s worth of books.
For better or worse, I am a self-declared book snob and rarely dabble in contemporary genre fiction. Finishing a Tana French or Gillian French novel has inspired little more than a drowsy "egh," but Confessions might be a watershed read. Its delightfully macabre plot, contemptible characters and artfully placed twists had me practically ripping out each page to get to the next.
This is a great recommendation: it places Wesley on a continuum and allows the reader to align themselves to his tastes. And the recommendation of a book called Confessions begins with its own confession, which is a literary flourish that demanded my appreciation.
The card worked on me, and I bought Confessions. Wesley is right; it’s a twisty, dark-spirited thriller, improbably narrated in the beginning by a woman out for revenge. It’s a morally compromised book, and one that might offend readers with its somewhat cavalier treatment of AIDS, but that weird ethical shakiness is part of its charm; you worry at every point that the book is going to turn into the literary equivalent of an exploitative snuff film, so you keep turning the pages to see what happens next.
And the thing is, I get books mailed to me every day of the damn week, and I’m in bookstores a lot, and I never would’ve found Confessions without Wesley’s recommendation card. No algorithm would’ve recommended it to me on a website. None of my friends would have pushed it into my hands, and no bestseller list would have alerted me to its existence. That serendipitous connection between reader and book never would’ve happened without the bookseller in the middle, to handle the introductions. That’s exactly what booksellers are for, and Third Place Books Seward Park has some phenomenal recommenders.