We all know that bookstores are an endangered species, independent bookstores more so. So when I discovered four bookstores in a single Seattle block last summer, I felt I had stumbled into a world lost in time. Yes Seattle, home of Amazon, which has been accused of putting more than a few brick-and-mortar establishments out of business, although Seattle is also home to such businesses as Elliott Bay Books (the Emerald City's version of Powell's Books). So let me tell you my story of stumbling across this lost world below the orange flourish.
Last summer the family went to Seattle to meet some friends and watch the Seattle Mariners play Cleveland. My wife grew in North Canton, Ohio, so her loyalty to Cleveland is stronger than the thousands of miles between that city and her. I hadn't been to Seattle, the other Northwest city, nor had I seen a baseball game for a few years, so I was all for the trip. Our daughter was four at the time, so she didn't have a say in the matter -- one of the few times she hasn't gotten her way.
So after a night in our downtown hotel, we walked along First Avenue South to Safeco Stadium, when I noticed a sidewalk sign for a used bookstore. Most of the storefronts in that part of Seattle are occupied with nightclubs and restaurants; a store selling something as unhip as used books stood out like a real Socialist at a CPAC conference. Because the ball game would start in less than an hour, I convinced my wife to pay the bookstore a visit after the game, despite my current library of around 1,500 books. (She's not happy about the room I've furnished to keep those books in, but that's a diary entry for another time.)
After the game was over -- Seattle led from the start, despite a surge in the later innings managed to defeat Cleveland -- we walked back along First Avenue and I stopped at Globe Books, (218 First Ave S.) The store occupied a narrow space,and had a better selection of titles. Now, I've come to find that there are two kinds of used bookstores: those where the owner sells just any book he can buy -- I remember one store that had about 20 volumes of conference proceedings of Pulp & Paper manufacturing technology from the 1940s and 1950s -- and those where the owner is choosy about the books he buys. The owner was one of the choosy ones. I overheard the owner tell another customer that he made an attempt to stock the Tintin books before the movie came out, because Tintin was his childhood hero. And I saw a catalog of the Egyptian antiquities in the metropolitan museum. I ended up buying a copy of George Marek's Beethoven: Biography of a Genius for $8.-- because anytime one visits a bookstore, one must buy something -- just to be polite.
However, moments after walking into the store I realized that this was not the bookstore whose sign I had seen while walking to the baseball game. And while perusing his books, I overheard the owner telling someone else that there were two more used bookstores, and when I paid for my copy of the Beethoven biography, I asked him about it; he directed me to two shops in the basement of the next building -- and neither of which were the one whose sign I had seen earlier.
The first I had been directed to was Newberry Books (214 1st Ave S.), which is a tiny shop located beneath the stairs into the basement. (I am not kidding: half of the store's area is under the stairs.) Another store whose owner is choosy, although I failed to find something to buy there, despite being tempted by a Library of America edition of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. While he did have a sizable selection of art books, I was surprised at a whole bookshelf full of books on the history of the Indian subcontinent.
Across the hall was Arundel Book (214 1st Ave S.) This bookstore was larger than Newberry, occupying a room about 30 x 30 feet. However it has a webpage which states that their stock consists of 100,000 books, and that they print a series of books. I wouldn't have thought all that from what I saw; maybe they keep those books out on Vashon Island where they recently opened a store. At Arundel Books I was able to be polite and I bought a paperback copy of Yasunari Kawabata's Beauty and Sadness.
Still, I hadn't found that bookstore with the sign on the sidewalk. I was intrigued: there were four bookstores this close together? I felt as if I had stumbled into one of those exotic European locales, such as the street of bars and taverns in Moenchengladbach, the kind of discovery tourists bore their friends about for the rest of their lives. The sign I had been looking for was only a few dozen feet further.
That fourth bookstore was Wesel & Lieberman (208 First Ave. South). This store was larger than the other 3 combined, and most notable for their selection of books on books: history of printing, publishing, as well as bibliography. I was surprised by having a selection of publications of the Hakluyt Society: this is a British organization which has spent over a hundred years translating and publishing the accounts or memoirs explorers which deserve to be better known. (I own several concerning Ethiopia -- none of which they had) Wesel & Lieberman also had an extensive Western Americana selection. I bought a copy of Naoyuki Ogino & Komono, A Geisha's Journey: My Life as a Kyoto Apprentice for $20; afterwards I found the business card of an executive for the publisher (Kodansha America) in the book, which makes me wonder about the history of this book. (Some books have an interesting story in themselves, how they travelled from the writer's pen or publisher's press to their current location.) There was also a wonderful surprise here: Wesel & Lieberman gives away bookmarks! Once upon a time, every bookstore gave these away, but it's been so long since I encountered them I can't remember the last store that had them.
Anyone else encountered a bookstore, used, new or mixed, worth reminiscing about?
Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule