After 40 years, Rick Simonson is still representing the best of literary Seattle

So far as origin stories go, no superhero ever had a better one.

Rick Simonson was working in the kitchen of a restaurant called Das Gasthaus on Occidental Ave in Pioneer Square. A transplant from Nebraska, Simonson was unsure exactly what he wanted to do with his life, but for the moment he needed a job and the kitchen’s trash needed taking out. As he was lugging out the garbage, Simonson noticed a warm glow from an open door at 109 S. Main St, and so he set down the trash can and peeked inside. He didn’t know it then, but that was a moment that would forever establish the arc of his life.

Inside, Walter Carr was putting books on the shelves of his new business, a bookstore he was calling Elliott Bay Book Company. Even now, Carr tells me, he clearly recalls the moment he first set eyes on Simonson. “Rick, in his very exuberant style, came in and said, ‘wow, a bookstore? I love books!’” Simonson hung around the bookstore for the next few years, working construction and helping seasonally, and nobody was surprised when — 40 years ago this month — he became a full-time bookseller at Elliott Bay.

Carr says Simonson immediately started agitating for Elliott Bay to start a reading series. “From the get-go, we had done events,” he explains, “but we were a one-room bookstore — we had no space to do readings. As the store grew, he kept campaigning for it.” Finally, in fall of 1984, the store had grown enough to incorporate a readings space and Simonson launched the first reading series with a slate of six writers including Ivan Doig.

Simonson kept building outwards from there. “He organized, communicated, and developed a reputation that eventually extended around the world,” Carr says. In the beginning, Simonson focused on young authors who had not built their reputations yet. “I think Amy Tan had her first reading at Elliott Bay,” Carr says, “and she had an upset stomach because she was so nervous.” Through his reading series and his advocacy, Simonson encouraged the careers of young writers like like Louise Erdrich, Raymond Carver, Tess Gallagher, Tom Robbins, and Terry Tempest Williams.

Without Simonson, it’s likely that Seattle would not have the literary reputation that it enjoys today. The reading series that he created — within a couple of years, the series ballooned from a few events a month to a few dozen to a few hundred a year — made Seattle a destination, and the care that Elliott Bay gave to its visiting authors made them intensely loyal to the store. Authors like Kazuo Ishiguro, Arundhati Roy, and Michael Ondaatje have returned to Elliott Bay again and again throughout their literary careers. Novelist Mona Simpson once told John Marshall at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that “Even writers who hate to travel want to go to Seattle” because of Simonson. He brought Salman Rushdie to Seattle at the height of his fatwa-induced seclusion, and Haruki Murakami’s 1997 Seattle reading — a rare stateside appearance from the novelist — only happened because of Simonson’s tenacity.

Without Elliott Bay Book Company’s reading series, which Simonson spent years dreaming up and then still more years cultivating into a world-class program, it’s hard to draw a direct line from the publishing industry in New York City and the relatively obscure pioneer city of Seattle. His passion and his hard work put our city on the literary map. Sonny Mehta, the celebrated editor-in-chief of the prestigious publisher Alfred A. Knopf, told Paula Bock of the Seattle Times in 1997 that Simonson reads as carefully and “as well as any of the colleagues I have in New York, so I have the highest respect for him.”

Chris Higashi, who recently retired as program manager at the Washington Center for the Book, would go a step further. She believes that Simonson helped create the idea of the modern book tour. When Elliott Bay Book Company started their events series, she says, tours “just weren’t happening like that.” She credits Simonson with coming up with “the idea that booksellers could sell more books if they put authors and book buyers together,” and then working with publishers to make those trips worthwhile.

Carr says that Elliott Bay’s reading series became such an asset that at one point founder “Jeff Bezos became very interested in the author series and made some overtures. He talked about trying to coordinate somehow or, as he put it, ‘help’ with the author series.” Carr and Simonson politely declined Bezos's “help.”

New booksellers at Elliott Bay are taught that there’s no such thing as a small reading; even if only two people show up for an event to celebrate a debut novel from a young author, that reading is a worthwhile investment because that author could become the next Michael Chabon or Jhumpa Lahiri, and those authors would likely keep coming back to the store, book after book, year after year. It’s happened hundreds of times over the last four decades; authors stay loyal to Simonson because Simonson was loyal to them.

If you’ve attended more than one reading in Seattle, odds are good that you’ve seen Simonson pushing around a dolly stacked high with boxes of books, and you’ve probably heard at least one of his introductions, which Seattle author Sherman Alexie affectionately described to me as “rambling, soft-spoken, tangential, erudite, affectionate, and odd.” Simonson is remarkably humble, always preferring to give the spotlight over to someone else.

But if you were to attend the annual Book Expo America industry gathering in New York City, you’d see a different side of Simonson: the man is a rock star. When walking the floor at the Javits Center, Simonson often can’t get more than fifteen feet without being accosted by some publisher, author, or big-name editor. As a young bookseller, I once followed Simonson for an afternoon at BEA and I still recall the fevered tenor of a seasoned New York publicist’s voice as she shouted “RICKEEEEEEE!” and ran across the floor at him, basically tackling Simonson in the hopes of pushing an advance copy of a book by a young author into his hands.

Above and beyond the reading series, Simonson is a passionate reader. “Rick has always had a galley waiting for me when I come to the store,” Alexie says. “He's always got a book in mind for my wife and kids, too. And I know he's always ready with a book for other customers — the civilian readers — and not just writers and the families of writers.” Higashi notes with a kind of wonder that Simonson is “still able to delight in finding a new author and a new book.”

When she and Bill Gates Sr. were still dating in the mid-1990s, Mimi Gates recalls that she asked Simonson to help her choose five books about love to give him as a Christmas gift. She recalls the sincerity and thoughtfulness that Simonson put into the effort. Ever since, Gates has relied exclusively on Simonson for recommendations: “His ability to really think deeply about what somebody else is going to enjoy is really magnificent,” Gates says. Because Simonson has been such a wonderful bookseller, Gates tells me that “to this day, I won’t touch a Kindle. Rick would never make me feel obligated or guilty even if I had one, but I am so loyal to him that I will only buy books from Elliott Bay Book Company.” She calls him “one of my favorite Seattleites.”

Seemingly as soon as Simonson established Elliott Bay’s reading series, he began reaching outward into the community. He has always encouraged readings that incorporate Seattle’s African-American and Asian-American communities. In 1999, when Capitol Hill’s Red and Black Books closed, Elliott Bay hired Red and Black bookseller Karen Maeda Allman to work with Simonson on community programming. Allman and Simonson sell books at any number of events around town including Hugo House readings, the Seattle Asian Art Museum’s Saturday University Lecture Series, and the Northwest African American Museum’s reading series.

Alexie praises the fact that “Rick was reading multiculturally and internationally back in the early 90s, long before it was a popular thing to do. He's always been an innovative reader.” In 1988, Simonson guest-edited a Graywolf anthology on the importance of multicultural reading. In 2013, when Simonson was a judge for the National Book Award, several people recall Simonson being honored to serve the NBA, but a little flummoxed because the intensive reading list requirements meant that he wasn’t able to read internationally as much as he’d like.

Simonson has contributed to communities outside of the bounds of Elliott Bay, too. Both Higashi and Gates recall the way Simonson coaxed them to join him on the board of a fledgling Port Townsend nonprofit poetry publisher called Copper Canyon Press. Higashi remembers that when he gave her the pitch, “I said ‘Rick, there’s a problem: I don’t read poetry.’ And he said, ‘well, but you’re a reader.’ He had that instinct and it changed my life. I became a really passionate reader of poetry because of that.” Gates thinks Simonson recommended her for the board because “He thought I knew the publishing business, but I didn’t.” Still, something must have worked: Gates remains on the board to this day.

Central District Forum founder Stephanie Ellis-Smith tells a story about a different kind of board recruitment strategy. In 1999, she was meeting with someone in Elliott Bay’s basement café to discuss her plans to create an organization dedicated to “contemporary African-American culture, humanities, and performing arts.” Simonson was staging the reading room for that evening’s event, but he became distracted by Ellis-Smith’s aspirations.

“Rick had sat down near us,” she says, “and he heard me talking about what I wanted to do with CD Forum. He commandeered the table; he was clearly now in charge. He said, ‘well, tell me what you want me to do because I’ll be on your board.’” Ellis-Smith was new to the city, and she was taken aback by this stranger’s enthusiasm. She recalls, “I said I reserved my right to hold off that decision until I learned more about him.” Then she did her research, and she notes, “Rick’s been on that board ever since — he was there with me, and he’s still on it even after I retired.”

As a board member, Ellis-Smith says Simonson has done nothing but good for CD Forum. “He was indispensable in helping me chart the course through our programming,” she says. “He took his fundraising responsibilities very, very seriously — still does. He has such a strong following and so many people have such respect for him that it was a blessing to have the imprimatur of Rick Simonson. That went a long way for us.” Gates agrees that on Copper Canyon’s board, Simonson has a “broad base of knowledge” that helps the publisher make contact with new communities. At meetings, Gates says, he “doesn’t speak often, but when he does it’s well-taken.”

Since 2000, Simonson’s attentions have extended outward as he’s shifted from a nationally known literary figure to an international one. Simonson has represented the US at literary events in China, Palestine, the United Arab Emirates and, most especially, the Jaipur Literature Festival in India, which he attends every year.

Simonson has always been a fierce advocate for international literature. He shepherded an agreement between India publisher Seagull Books and the University of Chicago Press to distribute their books in the US. “He has brought back books and authors from India that have not been published here,” Higashi says. “He’s extremely well-known among the heads of the Indian publishers.” Simonson was an early advocate of Anuradha Roy, the DSC Prizewinning author of Sleeping on Jupiter, importing copies of her earlier novel An Atlas of Impossible Longing and selling it at Elliott Bay when no American publisher would step up.

Higashi attended Jaipur with Simonson one year, and she says “I saw him do the same thing in India that he does here: You’re in his circle and he stops to introduce you to each person. He remembers all those names.” (Everybody I’ve talked with for this article expressed wonder at Simonson’s memory; he seems to be able to recall names and phone numbers with photographic precision.) In Jaipur, Higashi says, “I watched people respond to him there that I see the way people respond to him in the publishing world in the US. He does it all with such modesty and such generosity.” Ellis-Smith agrees that “Rick belongs and fits in wherever he is because he’s such a true and authentic person, whether he’s hobnobbing at the National Book Awards in a tux or if he’s lugging books back from some event across town.”

This month, Elliott Bay Book Company booksellers will quietly celebrate Simonson’s 40th anniversary as an employee. There won’t be a big, star-studded party, or a series of teary speeches. Instead, they’ll just keep doing the work, side-by-side, connecting authors and readers, bringing Seattle communities together, and sharing stories from hand to hand.

Everyone I talked to for this piece remarked on Simonson’s humility, his eagerness to pass the microphone to others. “I think Rick has changed very little in his personality in the time that I have known him,” Higashi says, “in the sense that he’s never made this work be about him.” Gates agrees: “he never promotes himself.” Alexie concludes, simply, “I love the dude.”

Simonson has been acknowledged for his hard work. In the late 1990s, he received the Nancy Blackenship Pryor Award from the governor of Washington, which cited his “passion” and “generosity,” as well as his support of “authors for their talents rather than their ability to sell.” He has been the subject of profiles in just about every major Seattle-area publication. But none of those accolades seem to fully encompass Simonson’s role in the history of Seattle’s ascendance. The city has grown with and alongside Simonson — from an enthusiastic little town to a city of national importance to a player in the global community.

“When you go to a reading, there is a sense of that kind of conversation that is integral to a sense of community and a sense of place,” Simonson told Seattle magazine’s Nicholas O’Connell in a 1996 profile. Few people have been as integral to Seattle’s sense of community and place over the last forty years than Rick Simonson.