Billie Swift knew she was heading toward a defining moment when she heard that John Marshall, the owner of Open Books, was planning to retire. Swift is on her way to completing the MFA at the Rainier Creative Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University this year, and so she was already at a crossroads in her life. What did Swift feel when she first read Marshall’s email? “Panic,” she laughs over the phone, and an “immediate sadness.” She says she feels compelled to use the word “necessary” to describe Open Books. “It just seemed sort of impossible that it not exist,” she says, and so she immediately started entertaining the possibility of buying the bookstore.
Of course, the concept of owning a bookshop in 2016 is a daunting one. “I stopped and considered more what that would mean and how possible that would be,” Swift says. She asked herself, “is this even possible? And then I talked to my family about it and yeah, I realized it might be.” From there, “I just sort of kept the conversation going with John and [Open Books co-owner] Christine [Deavel] and every conversation just seemed to confirm that it was possible. And it went from there.” From now on, Swift will be a regular fixture at Open Books, meeting customers and learning about the store’s day-to-day operations from Marshall. She’ll officially become the new owner in August.
Swift was born in Seattle, but she moved back here to stay in 2006 after years in New York. A quick Google search reveals a 2011 post she wrote for the New Yorker in which she already sounds absolutely besotted with literary Seattle. “Seattle doesn’t really have a literary scene, per se,” she wrote. “No, what Seattle has is more like a community.” Five years later, she’s taking over one of the most important pillars of this community, a sacred space for Seattle poets and a beloved destination for traveling lovers of poetry.
When asked if she has any plans in mind for the store, Swift sounds genuinely surprised. “I’m sitting here in the storeroom looking around,” she says, “and I think I’m definitely still just very excited to keep this store and this space going. Right now the focus is on how to maintain what to me is such an incredible poetic space and ensure that stays available.”
Does she have any particular fond memories of Open Books as a customer? “My family would come in here and go Christmas shopping. They’d tell John and Christine who they were shopping for, and John and Christine would help them pick out books.” And as she was working through her MFA program, Swift says she “would just come in here just to talk ideas out loud. I would need to have a conversation about something, whether it was a paper or a poem,” and Open Books was a place where she could do that.
“I think it’s going to be really fun to start having more readings and events and more opportunities for people to be in this space in under different circumstances,” Swift says. She’s put a lot of thought into what Open Books represents, what it means “to be in this space when there are one or two people browsing, or to be in this space in a reading, or to be here in the middle of a conversation about a book. It’s interesting to see how the space changes and how it stays the same.”
When I say that Swift seems to be thinking about the store in terms of a conversation, she perks up. “That’s what it is,” she says. With Open Books, she says, John and Christine have mimicked “this great sense of words-meets-white-space that you can fall into. When you’re here in this store, it feels so expansive and yet contained, in the way that a poem feels expansive and contained, and I love that. I love what they’ve done here. I think it’s such a wonderful place.”
So does the new owner have anything to say to Open Books customers who want to know where she’s coming from? “For those who love the space,” Swift says, “I love the space too — very, very much. At the very least we have that in common. Maybe when you come in we can discover more things that we have in common.” It’s a conversation that Swift seems eager to have.