Last night, in a stately room beneath the downtown YMCA, David Brewster welcomed a few dozen people to Folio, the Seattle Athenaeum. Brewster has done a lot of introducing in his life as a Seattleite — he’s the founder of the Seattle Weekly, Crosscut.com, and Town Hall Seattle. But you could argue that he’s never tried anything as ambitious as Folio before.
Brewster offered a brief overview of the athenaeum concept: originated by Benjamin Franklin as a way to help alleviate the high cost of books, athenaeums were private libraries dedicated to the prospect of “mutual improvement” — places where people could come together to read, write, and discuss literature. There are 19 athenaeums in the United States; when Folio opens in January of next year, it will be the 20th, but only the third on the west coast.
Folio is starting to come together quite nicely. The architecture of the downtown Y building is gorgeous, with high ceilings and intricate woodwork. As of right now, the space is made up of a few large rooms — they’re intended to be work and reading spaces, with varying degrees of quietude from “coworking” to “silence” — and a whole lot of books arranged in very little order on some IKEA shelves spread around the building. Brewster explained that the books will be organized into sections as in a bookstore, and they will be available for withdrawal from the library for paying members.
Folio will also be home to “author programs, civic programs, and music programs,” including events put on by a number of partners. Brewster gestured over to a large study and said that perhaps on Monday mornings a Proust discussion group will gather there, while on Thursday nights people might come together to read the works of Balzac. Folio has signed a 13-year lease for the space, and at this time next year it will expand into a similar set of rooms in the basement below the current space.
Brewster introduced Lisa Sanders, who had been hired just 36 hours before as Folio's first librarian. Sanders briefly sketched her life as a librarian, from the one-room library she patronized as a child in Maine to her work as a research librarian at the Gates Foundation. Sanders described her time in libraries largely through various infestations she has had to deal with — bats, squirrels, silverfish — and said that her primary love as a librarian is creating something new and of lasting value. Her excitement was palpable.
Guest speaker Knute Berger offered some historical perspective on libraries in Seattle. Seattle had its first library, Berger explained, before it had a working plumbed bath tub. He gave a brief overview of some of the first books ever introduced to the Seattle Public Library’s collections, including three books by Harriet Beecher Stowe that were not Uncle Tom’s Cabin and three books by J.G. Holland, a once-popular author who is now virtually forgotten.
It’s always exciting when a project is on the cusp of becoming something real — especially a project like Folio, which Brewster said has been in the works for about two years. It’s hard to look at the space and not picture someone curled up with a hardcover in the leather chair over by the window overlooking Marion Street, or a group of people sitting around a table discussing Sherman Alexie’s latest poetry collection, or someone closing herself in one of the private offices off to the side of the working stations and setting to work on her own novel.
But plenty of questions hang over the athenaeum. Will Seattleites really pay $120 a year (less for students and young people) for a library when one of the world’s most beautiful libraries is just up the street offering free membership to everyone? The crowd last night was almost 100 percent white; does Folio have any sort of a plan for diversifying its membership? In a city teeming with great literary events every night of the week, is there room for one more venue offering readings and book clubs?
Considering Brewster’s track record and the talent he’s accumulated to join the campaign for Folio, it seems as though he has a pretty good shot at succeeding. (Members of the campaign include Town Hall’s Stesha Brandon, Phinney Books’s Tom Nissley, Steve Scher, Garth Stein, and Mark Wessel.) Based on the audience last night, people seem eager to help in any way they can, donating rugs and furniture and time for the cause.
At the end of the night, Brewster indicated that Folio’s most pressing need, at the moment, was for donations of books. He promised the crowd that if they donate to the athenaeum, “we can take good care of your books, and we can put them in the hands of good people.” As a mission statement, that’s pretty compelling stuff.