Meet Mercer Street Books, our first Bookstore of the Month

The east wall of Mercer Street Books

(Every four weeks, the Seattle Review of Books will feature one area bookseller as our Bookstore of the Month. We’ll run weekly features highlighting some of the qualities that make the store so unique — the staff, the stock, the events — as a celebration of bookselling culture. Our first Bookstore of the Month is especially near and dear to our hearts because they also agreed to serve as Seattle Review of Books’s mailing address, for which we are eternally grateful.)

“Having a bookstore is like throwing a party every day,” Mercer Street Books owner Debbie Sarow says. She quickly adds, “only I’m not in charge of the guest list.” Sarow has been running Mercer Street Books for six years this summer, and if the store feels as though it’s been there for decades, that’s because it has the weight of history behind it.

The store’s address, 7 Mercer Street, has been continuously home to a bookstore for decades now: Titlewave Books stood there for more than twenty years before closing in 2004. (It was reportedly playwright August Wilson’s local bookstore of choice.) Twice Sold Tales took over the spot for five years before Sarow made it her own. Owning a bookstore wasn’t in her life plan: “I did not suffer from the I-have-to-be-the-boss syndrome,” Sarow says. She looks around the shelves of her bookstore for a second. “But now I guess I do.”

Sarow has been selling books in Seattle for fifteen years; she worked at the Twice Sold Tales on Capitol Hill at John and Broadway before moving over to Pioneer Square antiquarian booksellers Wessel & Lieberman. The job at Twice Sold Tales is probably what taught her that bookselling was like throwing a party; when she started there in 2000, it was less of a bookstore and “more of a scene,” especially on Fridays when it stayed open for 24 hours. Mercer Street employee Red Reddick worked at Twice Sold Tales back in the freewheeling days, too, before moving over to Bailey/Coy Books for its last few years. Reddick alone has decades of bookstore experience; she’s probably forgotten more than entire Barnes & Noble staffs will ever know about bookselling.

Mercer Street Books is quite obviously an extension of Sarow’s personality. It’s very tidy and fastidiously organized; first-time browsers often refuse to believe it’s a used bookstore. Sarow somehow recalls the placement of every single book on every single shelf in the store. And while she says she’s always admired “people who own speciality bookstores, because their knowledge of that subject is vast,” she thinks general interest is more her style.

“It suits my personality better to know three factoids about most subjects. Do I know a lot about film? No, but I can tell you three facts about it. You’re always learning different things in a general interest bookstore.” One of her favorite parts of owning a bookstore is getting to talk to customers about their interests. “If you ask people questions about what they like to do, they’ll tell you all about it. They’re happy to tell you.”

The thing that really sets Mercer Street Books apart from other bookstores is the quality and thoughtfulness of its stock; unlike other used bookstores that blind you with the sheer volume of titles, every single book on the shelves at Mercer Street feels hand-selected purposefully with a single buyer in mind. Sarow is selective when she buys customer’s books for the store but she pays well, and many neighbors of the store refuse to sell their books anywhere else. Mercer Street Books inspires a particular passion in visitors. Sarow says the store often receives “love letters from customers and from strangers in the mail.” These effusive declarations of love, packed with adjectives and dripping with ardor, are “way better than a Yelp review,” she says. “It’s such an old-fashioned thing to do, that somebody had to go find a letter and a piece of paper and a stamp and get to the post office. I don’t know why it is that I get letters like that from time to time.”

At that, part-time Mercer Street employee Aaron Bagley jumps in. “Debbie doesn’t see why the bookstore is magical, but it totally is,” he says. When he went to Paris and visited the world-famous bookshops there, Bagley says, a shock of recognition dawned on him. “Seattle has one of these bookshops,” he realized. In fact, “I’m part of one.” And he’s making the bookstore a multigenerational affair; on his Wednesday shifts, Bagley brings his infant son in to the store with him. Bookstore babies trump bookstore cats every time.

Sarow says it took a while to learn how to become the hostess of the party that is Mercer Street Books. When she opened the store, “all of a sudden, people were paying attention to me.” Her desk by the store’s large front windows place her practically in the middle of the sidewalk in one of Seattle’s most schizophrenic neighborhoods, where Space Needle-seeking tourists wander past Queen Anne residents and boozy Belltown kids out for a pub crawl, and being the center of attention did not come naturally for her. Maybe that’s why she likes buying customers’ used books so much, because it gives her the opportunity to immerse herself into another story: “I always feel like it’s a little bit of an honor to buy people’s books. You get a glimpse into someone else’s life, and that’s not something we often get under any circumstance.”