Talking with an owner of the Seattle area's newest bookstore, Brick and Mortar Books

Last Tuesday, the Seattle area’s newest bookstore opened its doors. Located in Redmond Town Center, Brick & Mortar Books is a general-interest new bookstore that will carry up to 30,000 titles when its shelves are full. For the next month, Brick & Mortar will be in soft-opening mode as its team of booksellers learn the ins and outs of bookselling and meet their community. On the weekend of June 23rd and 24th, the store will host its official grand opening weekend.

Brick & Mortar co-owner Dan Ullom was kind enough to chat on the phone with us late on the evening of his store’s second full day of business. He sounded tired but happy, and eager to learn more about his newly chosen career. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. To watch Brick & Mortar evolve and grow into its new space, you can follow the store on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Thank you so much for agreeing to talk. I'll try not to keep you on too long. I know you've had a bunch of long days. Can I ask, first of all, your title?

I'm one of three owners at Brick & Mortar Books. Actually, I should probably say four owners. We have three active owners — my mom, my dad, and I are all in the store every day. My wife, Heidi, is also an owner but she works at Seattle Children's Hospital. So far, every day she's also worked at the store, but she hasn't quit her day job.

Wow. So, it's a family affair.

It is. I have two kids and both of them worked in the store today. My son is an expert in breaking down boxes and my daughter is learning to shelve books.

May I ask how old they are?

My son is nine years old and my daughter is eleven.

I like that in your media appearances you talk fondly about the Borders Books and Music that used to be in Redmond. I think that would have been impossible fifteen years ago, for an independent book store owner to praise a chain bookseller like that.

Honestly, it's kind of funny. I taught for fifteen years and I suspect I would not have left teaching [for bookselling] had that Borders not gone out of business. It was just a community place — well-curated and fun. I know it was a loss for Redmond Town Center when that Borders went out.

That particular Borders did really well. The chain went out of business and, from my understanding, they were trying to keep a couple of successful stores alive and that was one of them. But I think in bankruptcy court, it's kind of an all or nothing thing, so they had to lose those stores, too.

We looked at a couple different sites, but here in Redmond Town Center, there was that community that's still missing Borders. It's funny — in the first two days, we had a ton of people come in and either clap or give us two thumbs up and tell us their story about missing Borders.

And right now, about a third of the shelves in our store are from that Borders.


Yeah. It took a lot of dusting and a lot of cleaning up, but they're holding books once again.

Where did you find those?

Redmond Town Center hadn't filled the void yet. They still had that spot that was open. The shelves were there and Steve Hansen, the guy that manages Redmond Town Center, said "if you open a bookstore, they're yours. You can have them."

That kind of leads into my next question, which was how Redmond Town Center has treated the store. I know an independently owned comic shop — the Comic Stop — rents there, so you're not the only independent business, but I don't think that people think of independent business when they think of that place.

I would say they should probably start thinking a little bit more of Redmond Town Center's independence. In the short time we've been there, they opened up The French Bakery. They have Sammamish owners, and I’ve hung out with them every day. I grab a coffee and hang out with Melanie and Kim.

The Comic Stop is great, too. My daughter learned to read at that comic shop. They're a big asset.

We also have Market Street Shoes that just went in. They're from Ballard, and you can go in there and you can talk to the owners, as well. They're an incredible store and they have really knowledgeable staff. Paint Away is a pottery studio and Hazel, the owner, you can see her there. There are a couple scattered throughout and just in the last couple of months that I've been there, they've added a few.

Do you have any bookselling experience?

In a sense, I do. I used to be a teacher. I taught fourth and fifth grade, and part of that job is convincing kids to read books that they should read and you'll know they love.

My mom was a librarian for Rachel Carson Elementary school in Sammamish, so she has that experience, as well. Weirdly enough, my dad has experience selling books but that was forty years ago. It may have been even longer than that — when he was maybe seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, he worked at a bookstore.

We know books. We didn't really know selling books and there's a lot for us to learn, still. But in the last two days, we've successfully sold books, so we're feeling good about ourselves. And we're definitely feeling good about Redmond Town Center and the community.

How do you go about opening up a bookstore with no experience? It's been done, obviously: The owners of Ada’s Technical Books on Capitol Hill had no experience at all selling books. What did you do? Did you read books on it or did you talk to booksellers?

We started by talking to people. Ada’s Technical Books is an amazing bookshop. One of the first things we did is we went to a bunch of bookshops and we talked to the owners and the people that worked there. [Ada’s co-owner] David [Hulton] was one of them — he told me, "you've got to carry these toys; you've got to carry this title. In your area, we really think these books will sell." I was like, "Wow, you're just giving me the trade secrets here."

I think the thing is, we all want to see each other succeed. I went to Village Books, and the owner of Village Books sat down with me for three or four hours and told me what the business was like and told me how to succeed. I went to Island Books and talked to people there. They're really helpful.

It really is a weird thing: I have a feeling if I was opening up a coffee shop, the other coffee shops wouldn't want to help me out. Maybe that's not true, but opening a bookstore is just such a unique, different thing.

One of the things I love to see is when a bookstore first opens, it gradually changes to fit the community, or the community shapes the bookstore. Can you see anything at this early date that you think your bookstore is going to change as it develops?

That's a really good question and there have been a couple of things already in just the two short days we've been open that we're looking at doing. We had a high interest in science fiction, graphic novels, and manga. [Before opening,] I didn't even know if we were really going to do manga. Not all those books have been ordered yet, we're still in the process, but I think we're going to double the size of those sections pretty quickly.

One of our employees, she's a science fiction expert. I was talking to a gentleman looking in the science fiction section and I said, “this is not my genre. I enjoy science fiction but I am not an expert. Turner is your expert, you'll want to talk to her." He ended up talking to Turner for half an hour. We ordered some books for him and he said, "I'll be back."

When we talk to people, we say, "what are the books that we don't carry that you'd like to see in the store?" We've read a lot of books, but we haven't read as much as the community. We don't want to try and make it like an algorithm.

We're going to have all the Stephen King books — they’re great; he's one of my favorite authors. But, we also have some authors that are a little less known — that our staff knows about and can talk about. Books that are equally as amazing, but maybe you didn't hear about them and maybe they didn't sell quite as well, but they should have.

You’re in your soft opening phase right now, and then you’re having a big weekend-long opening celebration the weekend of June 23rd and 24th. Are you going to have readings and events as the store progresses?

Yeah, that's something that we're working on all the time. We want to have author events and book clubs.

Something that I really want to do is we could get a couple people that are experts on sports books; we can have a panel and we can talk about that.

We are fortunate to live in an area with a high, high density of authors. We're working on a young adult panel right now that we're really excited about. We have a poet with three hundred thousand Instagram followers who's coming in a couple months, if all works out.

Is there anything that you really want the readers of the Seattle Review of Books to know about you?

We want to create a store that is a community store.

My dad reads three hundred books a year, I'm well-read, and my mom is a librarian, but we're learning in every part of this process. We just really want to find a way to keep the interest alive, keep the community alive, keep a group of people that can meet together and talk about books — learn about books that they had no idea even existed — and just have fun with literacy.

Of course, we are running this as a business and we want to make money, but none of us thought we're going to make more money leaving our jobs and opening a bookstore. We just really wanted to do something that we feel is close to our heart and we want to do something that we think our community needs. And it’s been great so far. We’ve had a couple teary-eyed moments in the first two days.

I'm really excited for you. It sounds like you're having a ball.

We are, yeah.