Seventeen bookstores in a single day: my Independent Bookstore Day journey

I’m not from here. I arrived from New England, in 1993, a grunge-hating, coffee-agnostic seventeen-year-old. Hours in mosh pits covered in other people’s sweat and spit while gazing adoringly at Mark Arm taught me to love the music of this place; becoming a sleepless single mother taught me the joy in the local joe. A great deal of the rest of what I know — about the Pacific Northwest and about life — I learned from independent bookstores and the people who love them.

My first work in Seattle was at University Book Store. Doing undercover security, my job was to spend hours browsing. In the mid-1990s, most of the shoplifters I caught ran a gamut from mellow heroin addicts on the one hand to indignant retirees on the other. In between spending time with those folks, I got to know the store’s merchandise. I learned I loved wonky poetry and moody fiction. My employee discount (15 percent!) enabled me to begin collecting both a personal library and an array of lifelong friends: people like Jeeves and Wooster, Thea Kronborg, Sula Peace, and Jack Wolff. I spent years carrying my copies of the Collected Dorothy Parker and Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons wherever I went, just in case I needed them. As I got to know the books, I also got to know the regulars who haunted the back corners reading science fiction or history, and the people who ran the store. One of the booksellers and I fell in love. In fact, I made all my first local friends from among the eclectic and brilliant who peopled and ran the store.

Everything changes. I left the bookstore for writing work; the bookseller and I broke up. But my first years in Seattle — at an independent bookstore, with independent bookstore people — fundamentally altered who I am and what I know. When I heard, last year, that Seattle and some of its neighbors planned to host a celebration for Independent Bookstore Day, I was in. I caught an early ferry and spent the day traipsing to 17 book stores around Puget Sound. I spent too much money and felt perhaps unreasonable (but very local) pleasure from figuring clever ways to dodge traffic. (I can’t share all my secrets, but if you want to make good time, you should hit the busy spots — ferry lines, I-90 — as early in the day as possible.) For my efforts, I acquired the prize: a 25 percent (!) discount at all 17 stores for a year. Over the course of this year, I’ve shyly offered up my Independent Book Store Champion card — a little gold-paper piece of pride I get to keep in my wallet — when purchasing books, notebooks, socks (such great socks at independent bookstores), and chocolate.

This year, I wanted to bring my kid. Eva’s fourteen. For a decade of her life, I was her only parent. Being a two-piece set for so long has, for Eva and I, brought an intense closeness. Eva is from here, but in most other ways we are unusually similar people, from our hair and (meager) height to our extreme bookishness. She’s almost as old as I was when I moved to Seattle; she’s old enough now to have her own sparkly Bookstore Champion card.

One of the things I’ve learned, from books and from bookstore people, is the singular magic of rising early, to prepare in the dark and quiet, for an adventure. When Eva and I woke in the wee hours on Saturday, I made the coffee while she made the snacks. Transplanted and autochthonous, we’re Northwesterners, so we carried the snacks along with the requisite spring-time pile of multi-use clothing layers to the car. We were off.

There was no traffic on I-5. We drove north happy, with the same sleepy anticipation that’s all our adventuring days — camping, trips to Port Townsend to visit poet-sages — so far. As we slowly awakened, we noticed we notice similar things. Before 9 am, each of us drew the other’s attention to: a homeless man at the gas station shouting, “God is good! Look at those beautiful fucking rims!;” a sign on a rural gate that read “DOG BITES. STAY IN CAR;” a ferry line conversation between two stoners that existed only in repetition, “Hey.” “Hey.” “The time has come.” “The time has come.” “At last.” “At last.” All day long, we made a game of watching the waterways we passed and crossed. The Salish Sea, Manzanita Creek, Agate Passage, Appletree Cove. Eagle Harbor, Green Lake, Lake Washington, and Salmon Bay. We wondered: are the water names in other places so prosaic, and so insistently relabeled from indigenous names? Eva, upon hearing (for the first time, apparently) that the Puget Sound is also known as the Salish Sea, said, “Ohhhhh, Mom. So many of your poems make more sense now.” Early on, we lost count of the number of bridges we crossed.

Is Independent Bookstore Day about books, or is it about stories? It was packed at Fantagraphics, where we slunk through a crowd of well-oiled, geeky hipsters and were rewarded with the discovery of a collection of wee, collaborative art books celebrating fabulous women (Nichelle Nichols and Yoko Ono among them). At several shops, we overheard folks questing less to visit all 17 stores and more to acquire the day’s unique merch offerings: “Do you have any more copies of the Gaiman coloring book?” “Nope, we’re out. Try Mockingbird!” At Secret Garden, we were offered the first slices from their massive (and delicious) cake, which we scarfed for second breakfast. Eva got to join my now-annual tradition of buying (excellent) feminist propaganda from Phinney Books, (2015: We Should All be Feminists by Adichie; 2016: X Is For…, the vinyl accompaniment for our copy of Rad American Women A-Z.) And at the Book Larder, our friend Mira knew exactly which Korean cookbooks to run past Eva’s K-pop obsessed eyes. Though I don’t know any of the people personally, I’m pretty sure we were there for the arrival of the former owners of Island Books, who were greeted gleefully by the staff with offers of beer and cookies. Speaking of owners, I got to congratulate John W. Marshall, who will pass his torch of ownership at Open Books soon. Over many years, this man has thoughtfully guided me to some of the best poetry I’ve read, including my first Eavan Boland books. Yesterday, I discovered (and brought home) a book of poems he wrote with his partner, Christine Deavel, called Work Together. I wonder (and look forward to) what work they’ll be up to next.

So, maybe it’s about the people. Last year I got into hock for Independent Bookstore Day; this year I’d saved up. Eva and I brought our list of favorite people and did some early holiday shopping. Finding treasures for friends and family is one of the day’s serendipities. Another is unexpectedly running into the best kind of people — people who love independent bookstores. We bumped into friends we hadn’t seen in ages at Edmonds Bookshop, and a favorite old classmate at Ada’s Technical Books. When the person who went on to visit all 17 stores in record time accidentally left behind his passport of stamps, we got to meet the kind (and adorable) couple who agreed to find him on the ferry to return it to him. I got to see my favorite fellow adventurer, Courtney, with her mom and friends at 8 a.m. in Poulsbo. Courtney and I met last year — same time, same place — when she introduced herself in the sunlit doorway of Liberty Bay.

Seventeen bookstores, 120 miles, two ferries, at least a dozen bridges. Does water separate or connect? Either way, stories are ferries, too. The manager at the University Book Store has an unusual number of stories about me — Pam and I have known each other for a long time. She can tell you about my old bookseller boyfriend, or about how she comforted Eva when she was an infant and screamed every time I left her side. At her current store and my old one, while Eva went looking for Korean textbooks, Pam led me to a display. “Omigod,” she said. “Have you read this? You have to read it.” The Story of My Tits, Pam said, is lyric, spiritual, funny. I had to read it, she said again, and Eva did, too. Obviously, I added the book to my stack.

Elliott Bay Book Company is our current local, and Eva insisted we end our adventure there. We arrived around 3:30, about two hours earlier than last year. The first person I saw when we walked up the wood steps was my favorite bookseller there, the quiet one who has surprised and delighted me more than once with his excellent and thoughtful recommendations. I was so excited to have completed the adventure I interrupted his conversation with another customer to announce our accomplishment. Another bookseller gracefully whooshed Eva and I to the tequila and soda station, where we each got to have a shot of an age-appropriate celebratory beverage.

Everything changes. Next year, Eva will have her driving learner’s permit and we’ll have a new local, at Third Place’s forthcoming Seward Park spot. Perhaps Eva will finally be taller than I am. (Current measure: Eva, 5’1”; Courtney, 5’2.”) Will I trust my kid to drive us through Seattle traffic next year? Will Third Place Books Seward Park offer a congratulatory shot of tequila? Will the adventure be the same? There’s no knowing. After our long and lovely Independent Bookstore Day on the road, I fell asleep on the couch with The Story of My Tits as my pillow and these questions burbling. When I woke up the next morning, the literary tattoo Eva had chosen for me from a stack at Eagle Harbor was just beginning to wear away from my wrist: “So she got up, and held out her hand.” This, in the end, might be what it’s all about.