Quick: what’s the oldest bookstore in Seattle? Generally when you ask a Seattleite that question, they break into a blank stare for a moment and then respond, “uh, Elliott Bay?” But no. Elliott Bay Book Company turns an impressive 43 years old this year. But our February bookstore of the month, University Book Store, celebrated its 116th birthday last month. 116 years! You’d be hard-pressed to find anything in Seattle that old. University Book Store has seen the World’s Fair come and go; it was here before the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and it will be here after the Alaskan Way Viaduct. It’s survived booms and busts and earthquakes and chain bookstores and online bookselling.
Of course, a bookstore can’t just survive through inertia: University Book Store’s selection is something special. They have among the best poetry and children’s book sections in town, and their science fiction section, managed and curated by Duane Wilkins, is quite possibly Seattle’s very best. Their reading calendar is stuffed full of everything from sci-fi authors to journalists to modern masters (I saw Alison Bechdel there a few years ago; it was one of my favorite graphic novel readings of all time) to some of the most popular people in the world (they brought Elizabeth Warren to town for her memoir in the heat of the “Draft Warren” movement).
And in a city full of knowledgeable booksellers, University Book Store claims an especially friendly staff. When you visit, you’ll most likely find yourself engaged in conversation with someone — used book buyer Brad, who hosts the Breakfast at the Bookstore podcast series, say, or Caitlin in the children’s department — who’ll most likely make you excited for a book you never knew existed.
It’s difficult to imagine a Seattle of 116 years ago. It’s even harder to imagine a Seattle without a University Book Store. Almost every notable event that’s happened in Seattle history — from our first and only female mayor to the “Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights” billboard to the rise and fall of cozmo.com — has happened under its watch. It’s as essential a part of our history as the Pike Place Market — and it’s older than the Market, too.