Seattle’s Disappearing Bookstores
By Charles Fischer
October 3, 2013
A recovering used book clerk laments the steady disappearance of a last great place for meandering
“Do you want any soda with that?” Kris Minta, the owner of Spine and Crown used bookstore on Capitol Hill, asks as he pours three fingers of bourbon into a paper cup. It is a hot June night, and Minta is throwing a going-out-of-business party in the snug Pine Street space he shares with the éminence grise of rare and out-of-print record stores, Wall of Sound. The room is crowded and buzzes with an indie vibe that I thought had been destroyed by suicide, heroin addiction and way too much money. There are about 23 bedraggled beards in the room and tattoos without number; most everyone holds a paper cup or can of Rainier beer. A street magician—emphasis on street—pulls a piece of rope from behind the ear of an uncertain, bespectacled little girl. Sahir, an 18-year-old Spine and Crown regular, asks me what I think about T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. I look at him as though he is from one of the Galilean moons of Jupiter—and he is—a wunderkind dressed in a Vietnam-era army jacket and on his way to Swarthmore in the fall. The street magician drops an F-bomb, his 14th of the night, as he circulates his donation cup. A musician fiddles with his amp, and an artist lays a large cardboard cutout of an insect in the center of the room for the next performance. Half the crowd spills out onto Pine Street for fresh air. Sahir complains that his fellow students at The Northwest School are boring because they only read the writers you would expect them to read, like Michael Chabon. The bourbon burns in my chest, and I think, goddamn it, I’m going to miss this place.
But all things must pass, as George Harrison mournfully observed—and this is especially true for Seattle’s used bookstores, which are shutting down at a steady clip, with more than a few big hits in the past year. And with their demise, we lose more than a place to pick up a $2 copy of The Hunger Games.
Seattle has long been an excellent place for bookstores, both new and used. Consistently voted among the most literate cities in the U.S., it is the home of a vibrant literary culture and has a storied history of independent bookstores. From Seattle Arts & Lectures to the Richard Hugo House, our city has been a place where both writers and readers thrive, and even prosper. Used bookstores, once as common as Dale Chihuly chandeliers, have played an integral part in our ecosystem of the written word and the city’s culture. Part symposium, part nerd refuge, the used bookstore was and is a place to meet other readers, discover books you never knew you wanted to read and—strange as it may sound—experience the sometimes tragic lives of a book’s past.
Buying used books is like buying vintage anything—whether it is scrounging for emerald green Manolo Blahnik pumps at Sell Your Sole or stumbling upon an Eames lounge chair in its original black leather at Area 51—the quest is as important as the purchase. “Looking for books was all about the thrill of the hunt, but that’s gone,” says John Erdmann, a former Seattle used book scout and now a faculty librarian at the College of Marin in northern California. “Now you can find anything you want instantly on online book sites, such as AbeBooks or Alibris. If you’ve been searching for a first edition of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces with a dust jacket in excellent condition, boom, you touch your smartphone, and—if you’re willing to pay [around $37]—the book is on your doorstep the next day.” (Above: Eleanor, a comfortable tenant at Twice Sold Tales on Capitol Hill)
In the last year and a half, the steady disappearance of used bookstores accelerated with at least eight prominent closures—the Book Kennel, Renaissance Books, Inner Chapters, the Capitol Hill Half Price Books, Bookworm Exchange, Once Sold Tales, Balderdash Books and now, thanks to the purchase of the Melrose Building, Minta’s Spine and Crown—with no stores taking their places.
“It has been a slaughter,” says Jamie Lutton, owner of Twice Sold Tales, a 26-year-old bookstore now located on the corner of Harvard Avenue East and Denny Way. Lutton’s shop, a fixture on Capitol Hill since 1987, has seen the rise and fall of many Seattle bookstores. The culprits behind the recent closures are many: theft, rents, the decline in reading, the rise of e-books and the buying and selling of used books online, which leads, of course, to that favorite nemesis of the used bookseller, Amazon.
“People treat used bookstores as exhibit halls for online book-buying,” Lutton says. “[They] come in with their smartphones and check prices online.”
No matter what one thinks of Amazon, it has been wildly effective at wiping out the competition—thanks to its demographic reach and massive used book inventory (via legions of private sellers). With Borders having declared bankruptcy and Barnes & Noble surviving by selling practically everything but books, Amazon is poised for total market domination. And that’s not including the used books of the future, i.e., e-book downloads. Between 2011 and 2012, e-books surpassed printed books in sales (with total mass-market paperback sales falling by 20.5 percent), and Amazon now squats on around three-quarters of the e-book market. All of which has a profound effect on the used books industry. “You are witnessing the death of probably 80 percent of all bookstores in this country,” says Twice Sold Tales’ Lutton.
And yet the near total eclipse of the old book world doesn’t have John Siscoe, owner of The Globe Bookstore in Pioneer Square, depressed. “My business has always been small,” he says, “5 percent of the population, at best. That’s not changed.” Siscoe, along with his wife, Carolyn Garner, have owned and operated the cozy Globe since 1979. “Young people are coming into the store. They like the object of the book.” (Left: Packed shelves at The Globe in Pioneer Square)
Siscoe’s optimism, however, is lost on Spine and Crown’s Minta, who is not hopeful about the future of used bookstores. “You see people walk by the shop, and say, oh look, a bookstore! And you can almost hear the quaint-sounding ‘e’ in the way they pronounce ‘bookstore,’ as in ‘ye olde booke store.” Local poet and writing instructor Lawrence LaRiviere White once described Minta’s shop as “exquisite,” and it was—primarily due to the owner’s curatorial talent. On my final visit to Spine and Crown, I found a rare Cambridge University Press edition of Heraclitus: The Cosmic Fragments next to a pile of WHAP! A Modern Gal’s Guide to Marital Bliss magazines (WHAP stands for women who administer punishment). When I tell Minta about LaRiviere White’s compliment, he shrugs his shoulders and says, “Yeah, thanks. But in six months, there will probably be an app for that.”
Not surprisingly, the 40-year-old decided to get out of the business. The rent on Capitol Hill was killing him, and after the sale of the Melrose Building (along with half of the block of East Pine on which it’s located, and the subsequent and much more ballyhooed loss of Bauhaus coffee shop) to the Madison Development Group, he is packing off to an M.F.A. program in poetry at Syracuse. (The developer plans on building a mixed-use space for retail and rental.) “In two years, this neighborhood is going to look like a strip mall. The analogy I use is a shoe repairman. One hundred years ago, I bet, Seattle had 300 shoe repair stores. Now, what do we have, three, four, half-dozen? You are watching how institutions disappear.” Of course, Minta is correct—the Pike/Pine corridor is merely going through the same metamorphosis that has occurred in many Seattle neighborhoods, that transformation from a funky, DIY community of students, artists and bohemians to an overpriced playground for the upper-middle class. The loss of places like Spine and Crown, Wall of Sound and Bauhaus Books & Coffee is the price we pay for our Miller Hull condos and $16 emmer and lentil salads.
While I was in graduate school in the ’90s, I worked as a clerk at Magus Books in the University District—a neighborhood that has consistently defied gentrification. Magus is arguably one of the best bookshops in the city. Much of its spirit goes back to Dave Bell, who bought it in the 1970s and was its longest and most formative owner, giving the store its distinct shape and personality. An outspoken advocate for civil liberties, the late owner kept a brand-new copy of The Anarchist Cookbook, along with psychedelic mushroom kits, in the locked display case in the front of the store. Though Bell had a science background, he made a point of hiring liberal arts people, many working toward advanced degrees or already with them. Rhodes scholars worked side by side with graduate students in English and philosophy. A day spent in Magus was a day spent in the best class you ever had in college—I remember talking about the pattern of human carelessness in The Great Gatsby with Dave Heller, who now teaches philosophy at Seattle University, and having Bill Kiesel, now publisher and editor of Ouroboros Press, break down the dialectical gymnastics behind Malleus Maleficarum, a medieval treatise on witches. Hanging out in Magus was like hanging out with the knowledgeable and quirky clerks in High Fidelity. Perhaps the only reason Hollywood has never made a hit movie about used bookstores is they don’t come with a soundtrack.
That’s not to say there isn’t something a little grim about the used book trade. Perhaps because of the turbulence of my life, there were days at Magus when I could feel the sadness that lived in the books’ spines. It is a commonplace knowledge among buyers of used books that no one sells them because they are happy; they are often in trouble—divorce, illness, bankruptcy and death. All of which is made more tangible by the old bookmarks, pressed flowers, receipts, grocery lists and snapshots you’ll find inside the used books. Unlike new books, pre-owned books are often a story wrapped in another story. Once while culling through a library full of books, Magus clerk Maureen Duryee found a cache of love letters from a University of Washington professor to his recently deceased wife. “When I gave the box of letters to him, he held them like a baby,” she says. A few weeks later, the professor came into the store. Duryee remembers him saying, “When I got them back, I closed all the curtains to my living room, read the letters and spent three days with my wife.” (Above: Kris Minta, in the recently shuttered Spine and Crown on Capitol Hill)
Used books bear the mark of time on their dust jackets, spines and pages: the underlined notes of a hopeful reader that drop off after the first chapter, the dedications, inscriptions, and signatures of past owners, many of whom presumably are now dead. One of the most infamous inscriptions to come into Magus is the name of a Seattle Metro bus driver, R.D. Turner, penned in bold caps in the flyleaf of books. Robert Dennis Turner, or “R.D.” as he was known in the book world, had a reputation for oddness and large volume book buys. Magus purchased thousands of Turner’s books before he stabbed a woman to death in her Alki beach condo in 1985. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 320 months at the Washington State Penitentiary, where he continued, for a time, to buy books from Magus. If you are a used book buyer—favoring highbrow tomes on poetry, Greek and Roman classics, and medieval history and literature—you may have his signature in your collection.
It’s not just the books and the clerks who create the distinct culture of the used bookstore; the stacks attract customers straight out of Dickens. Among my favorites were the one-armed man who visited daily, always whistling an enigmatic tune; and the neurotic, down-on-his-heels anthropology adjunct who would pace the store rearranging the stacks and leave without making a purchase. The oddest, however, was the customer who only came into the store on Husky football days and who would ask whomever was working the cash register where the books on sex and Nazis were located. He then would go to their respective aisles, pull a half-dozen of each off the shelf, open and spread them on the floor, where he would lie down and caress their pages like a world-weary voluptuary at an orgy of Nero.
About two miles from Magus is South Lake Union, where Amazon is building its 21st-century online empire—founded improbably on selling books—with not a bookstore in sight. Efficiency and standardization are the norm: faceless glass and metal apartments for faceless human transactions. Badge-wearing knowledge workers don’t need a bookstore; they’ve got the whole world—to paraphrase the classic American spiritual—in their hands. The virtual world offers the promise of a frictionless universe, and this dream, perhaps, explains the power of its seduction.
But Magus has never looked so good, and Chris Weimer, its current co-owner, in the face of all the bad news about bookstores, is optimistic. “Things are going swimmingly here,” Weimer says. “I feel a pang of guilt.” He believes that the book and the used bookstore will not succumb to the depredations of the screen, handheld or otherwise. As we talk, the conversation wanders, as it always does at Magus, and soon Weimer is talking about a recent trip to New Mexico to see Star Wars: Episode IV, dubbed in the Navajo language. “I’ve never seen an audience so excited to see a movie,” he said. “It was really interesting, too, because there were no Navajo words for ‘empire.’”