Our November Bookstore of the Month, Elliott Bay Book Company, is a store that prides itself on its history and its strong sense of continuity. But not everyone at Elliott Bay has worked there for decades. New booksellers start at the store all the time, and they make their mark pretty quickly. Mary Thompson started at Elliott Bay in mid-June. It’s her first bookstore job, though not her first literary job — she worked at the Hugo House doing front desk and events assistance before getting into bookselling.
Thompson works in the fiction and fitness sections, as well as helping with magazines, internet orders, and the readings team. What does she think of working at Elliott Bay so far? “I like the creative aspect,” she says. “I love writing and it seemed like being surrounded by books was a good option; Elliott Bay was kind of a second home. It made sense to work here.”
As a student at Seattle U, Thompson was interested largely in 20th century classics like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Working at Elliott Bay has made her aware of a whole contemporary universe of writers she never before gave much attention. “My interest in graphic novels is a lot higher than it used to be,” she says, for example. “Working at Elliott Bay, I feel like I’m just consuming so much. There’s a list of books growing that will never be completed.”
What books has she discovered since working there? She’s especially excited about Eileen, the novel by Otessa Moshfegh, which she calls “amazing.” “It’s all the things I’ve always liked about novels — it’s surprising and has such a unique voice.” Thompson likes that Eileen is “dark and its funny,” and that it features “a female narrator like I’ve never read before. It’s disgusting and morbid and I love it.” For graphic novels, she’s been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther and The Arab of the Future and The Arab of the Future 2 by Riad Sattouf.
This is the time of year when Elliott Bay employees are asked to choose a handful of books to recommend for holiday gifts. Thompson picked Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Decisive Moment, a reissued version of a book by “the original street photographer.” She admits that it’s an “extravagant choice,” a huge and expensive book, but “if you’re gonna get someone a big gift, I think it’s the way to go,” Thompson says, calling it “the most beautiful book I’ve ever seen.”
Another book she chose to promote for the holidays originally seemed “too dark and too sinister” for the time, Thompson explains, but “now it seems the perfect choice:” James Thurber’s The Tiger Who Would Be King, illustrated by Joohee Yoon. “It’s about a tiger who wants to be king of the jungle and throws a coup, and everybody dies in it. It’s supposed to be funny, but it doesn’t seem very funny now. it just seems very stark and dark.” Thompson says its message, that “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” proved to be more apt than she expected.
Thompson is from a suburban California town. In 2008, the local Borders closed, and no new bookstore opened to take its place. She had to travel “far away” to get to a bookstore. That makes working at Elliott Bay a special kind of privilege for Thompson. “Just in general, the fact that it’s been around so long is phenomenal to me,” she says. “Seeing people who’ve lived here all their lives and know it as their neighborhood bookstore” is a rewarding feeling. She’s part of a community with roots, and she’s adding to that community’s future every day.