The Great Seattle Literary & Bookstore Tour
Updated: Jul 2, 2018
Seattle is my kind of town—you can't go two blocks without stumbling upon a cool café or bookstore. And sometimes you think you found a bookstore, but it's a café that sounds like a bookstore, as you can see by "The Bookstore" on the right of this photo, which is the name of a restaurant, or "Storyville" on the left, which is followed not by "Books" but by "Coffee."
Even my hotel room greeted me with a selection of writing by Seattle authors right away:
Of course, any newcomer to Seattle must make a visit the Pike Place Market. Opened in 1907, it is one of the US's oldest continuously operated public farmer's markets. But explore its depths, and you'll discover that there are several bookstores in Pike Place Market alone.
BLMF Literary Saloon
BLMF is one of those great used bookstores that is just absolutely packed with books. You really need to search through it. It also gives you the feeling that if the books aren't selling as fast as they're coming in, they will just keep stacking more books on top until it's full to the brim.
"BLMF Bookstore is proof that there are treasures to be found for the patient visitor who wanders down to the neglected lower levels of Pike Place Market. J.B. Johnson has owned this cozy, lovingly curated store for 17 years, ever since a guest at his book-filled home commented that he had 'books like a motherf----er' (hence the name)."
Also inside Pike Place Market, you'll find...
You can tell they've got good taste when they dedicated a whole row of the front display window to Kurt Vonnegut!
The proprietor was a friendly and interesting guy who started up a nice conversation with us.
"How's it going?" I said to the guy at the counter of Lamplight Books. He responded:
"Every day is a good day in a bookstore."
Lamplight Books was another cool bookstore packed with books I wish I'd read.
On the outside of Pike Place Market, you can find Left Bank Books.
Of course they had an X'd out Starbucks logo when the original Starbucks is right around the corner.
Left Bank Books is a collectively owned and operated anarchist bookstore (not to be confused with the Left Bank Books in New York, which sadly shuttered its doors last year).
Does that make it ironic or appropriate that they make you leave your bag at the counter when you enter?
The store carries over 10,000 books, specializing in "anti-authoritarian, anarchist, independent, radical and small-press titles"
Left Bank Books is also a small press. According to their website, they only publish occasionally, but they recently released a book of poetry called "Love is Not Enough" by Frances Gregory.
They really couldn't offer a better reading nook. Here, you can tuck yourself away into the recesses of the store's second floor as you contemplate solutions for society's many problems.
A few blocks south of Pike Place Market, you'll find Pike Street Press.
It's not a bookstore, it's a "Letterpress Print & Design Studio" with a gallery.
But featuring among its treasures an antique Heidelberg Windmill Press, anyone on a bookstore tour is going to want to at least poke their head in.
More Literary Delights
If you're touring Seattle, you must ascend the iconic Space Needle.
So ascend it you will.
And take in the whole of Washington spread out all around you.
But when you get back down, don't leave too quickly and potentially miss out on more literary adventures.
No, I don't mean the Chihuly Museum, although that is worth seeing. I'm talking about the Experience Music Project Museum of Pop Culture (EMP MoPOP). Inside, we found there were Science Fiction and Fantasy exhibits.
On display, they had the original manuscript of George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire Book 1) side-by-side with HBO's script for the Game of Thrones show, each opened to the scene where Ned sentences the Night's Watch deserter:
Next to Terry Brooks' manuscript for Elfstones of Shannara was his actual hand drawn map of the Four Lands:
They also had Patrick Rothfuss' manuscript for Name of the Wind:
Most of these displays were movie props, but alongside these manuscripts, they also had a display of prototype Magic: The Gathering cards:
And this particularly fascinated me because my first day in Seattle, I had encountered Magic cards in an unexpected place out in the wild:
Those MTG Plague Rats with "I'LL QUIT TOMORROW" creeped me out and stuck in my head way longer than Seattle's infamously icky gum wall:
The Seattle Central Library is an architectural work of art! Photo by Bobak Ha'Eri
The Seattle Central Library is a wonder on the inside as well, even if it does start to feel Borgesian at times as you realize there are more floors than you first thought, and you find yourself wandering labyrinthine corridors of books wondering just where that elevator got to.
Unlike the typical bookstore, the library is hugely spacious even though there are many, many shelves of books.
It was nice to see that homeless people were more than welcome in the library. They had plenty of computers set up and offered special programs for creating resumes and searching for jobs online.
It may have been a long day, with exhaustion now reaching for your legs, but you'll drink another cup of coffee, and because you don't have a car, make the trek away from Pike Place Market out to the Capitol Hill district of Seattle. By night, the commuters leave downtown Seattle a ghost town, meaning you'll only encounter hobos and night owls if you remain. For books, you'll climb to Capitol Hill, a district of the city that stays up all night. Past the bars and the characters shouting and gesticulating on every sidewalk, you'll reach the famous Elliott Bay Book Company:
First located in Pioneer Square, Seattle's original district, Elliott Bay Book Co. moved to this location in 2010. It's said that the set of Café Nervosa in Frasier was based on the original, underground location of the Elliott Bay Book Co.
These photos give you a taste of the fact that this is a huge, yet elegant, bookstore that maintains a finely curated selection.
You'll not only find books from small presses, but even tiny literary zines!
I love to see shelves of staff recommendations. It's the personal touch that's typically not allowed in the chain bookstores that sell shelf space to the highest bidder.
I sat for some time in a cushioned chair reading the bizarre Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec, which I had picked up from the staff recommendations shelf. It's one of those books that seems to lean heavily on the insane side of the Madness/Genius dichotomy.
I was overcome with visions of sitting with my dog, Lady, in the store because they had a sign up stating that dogs weren't allowed in the café section, which meant they were allowed in the bookstore, and that's amazing because you should be able to travel everywhere with your best friend even though that's not usually the case. The truth is, at this point in the trip, after so much traveling, after so many adventures, and after working the whole day prior to this night, you're physically exhausted, which has left you mentally fragile. You shove the book back onto the shelf because its words are starting to take over your thoughts like a symbiote.
You stand on the mezzanine level and look out over the store, but the wooden structures give you visions that you can see beyond the store, to the great Washington wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, where you live in a log cabin like in the early days of Gary Snyder. Visions of you weigh heavily as well, reader, for there are many parts in this narrative where the line between you and I blurs.
Your retreat back to the hotel is downhill, but it's still a long walk. Along the way, a pit stop is made to the unexpected Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room. Unlike the endless mimesis of their typical stores, this is a one of a kind location.
A cup of coffee could be nice to restore your energy reserves, and indeed, your spouse urges you to order one.
But the huge number of coffees on display is too overwhelming to use the brainpower to choose one.
Even in this place, you find shelves of books hidden in a nook up above the machinery, which is great if you want to read about coffee.
But you continue to poke through the store and examine the artifacts on display. You pick up a French Press wrapped in goat wool, but when you catch sight of the pricetag on the bottom—$400—you have a vision of it tumbling out of your shaking, fragile hands, the glass shattering about your feet. You manage to place it back on the shelf and flee out onto the sidewalk, pushing yourself the rest of the way to the hotel.
As mentioned, Pioneer Square in the southwest is the original heart of Seattle.
The Smith Tower may seem quaint on the skyline now, but in 1914 it was Seattle's first skyscraper and the tallest building west of the Mississippi.
"Anybody who's been to Seattle and missed Alaskan Way, the old water front, has missed the point — here the totem-pole stores, the waters of Puget Sound washing under old piers, the dark gloomy look of ancient warehouses and pier sheds, and the most antique locomotives in America switching boxcars up and down the water front, give a hint, under the pure cloud-mopped sparkling skies of the Northwest, of great country to come." - Jack Kerouac
The thing to know about Pioneer Square is that it is a story higher now than it originally was. Seattle was built on a swamp, so the whole city was sinking until the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. While it destroyed almost the entire city, it was a miracle that only one person was killed. The residents decided to fill in the swamp and rebuild the city above the old city. But some of those original structures are still down there. When I said the original Elliott Bay Book Company was underground, I meant that literally.
If you see sidewalks with this purple glass (it was originally clear, but UV exposure turns it purple), it's actually a skylight. Seattle is famous for these, but after this trip, I noticed them in New York City, Jersey City, and Paterson.
Seen from underground, you can tell how much light these let in. They cut the glass in a special way to refract as much light as possible, and this is what was used to light up underground places in the time before electricity.
You can take tours through abandoned sections of the underground structure beneath Pioneer Square.
But plenty of businesses still operate in underground locations.
And an underground establishment you'd like to visit is Ars Obscura, Hand Bookbinding and Restoration.
I was saddened to learn that Revolution Books, once a must-see on any literary journey to Pioneer Square, shut down in late 2016.
Their titles focused on social justice, particularly #BlackLivesMatter.
The Globe's classic outside look masks the fact that there's a ton of books awaiting you within.
Prominent in this shot is a poster for Seattle's awesome Beckett Fest in 2014.
As you can see, in back it opens up to an indoor area of establishments.
You can also venture upstairs to find an even great selection.
At the moment we were there, they were working on their stock, but we were more than willing to shimmy through the boxes and take in the homey feel.There's also a great reading nook up there!
If you'd like to take a virtual look through The Globe Bookstore,Google Maps' Streetview will actually let you inside the store. It's really nice, but you have to keep resisting the urge to reach through the screen and pick up a book to flip through!
If you're into mystery books, here's an entire store chock full of bringing you the best ones.
And its location is appropriately mysterious in setting the mystery vibe.
This bookstore is located in the same space as David Ishii's famous bookstore (he died in 2012), although Arundel Books has been in business since 1984.
We ended up having a long conversation with the proprietor. I specifically remember him making a point about Walt Whitman's poetry reflecting the fact that he worked with printing presses and had trained himself to read the letters backwards (their website does point out that Arundel Books runs a small "publishing company that is about to acquire its own vintage letterpress printing press.")
You may notice I don't post stacks of the books I bought from these bookstores. That's because usually I'm broke and I tell myself I already have stacks of books I didn't read yet back home, so I should save the money I do have. However, if I encounter a book I'm interested in that seems unique, particularly to the place I'm in, I'm often tempted to get it. So I did buy a book here at Arundel Books: Breath on the Mirror: Seattle's Skid Row Community by Laurie Olin.
When the proprietor saw me flipping through it—there are really cool sketches alongside the text—he told me that they just found a small box of these in an attic, and it's been out of print since the 70s.
The term "Skid Row" actually comes from Seattle, where logs were literally skidded down the hill toward the water to be packed onto ships to go down to California. Even in the contemporary age, there was a large homeless population in Seattle, and I saw the same further north in Vancouver, Canada. I don't know for sure, but the way there would be so many homeless together and out in the open, I had the impression they were less persecuted than they are in eastern cities like New York, where they're frequently forced out of spots.
Bonus Pacific Northwest Bookstores
Now, I don't think I visited enough of the Pacific Northwest to use that name in the whole post, especially since I know that Powell's Books in Portland would be mandatory, and I haven't made it there yet.
Nevertheless, there are a couple of bookstores we visited outside of Seattle that I'll include here.
You can take the ferry from Seattle, through the Puget Sound, to Bainbridge Island.
Eagle Harbor Book Co., Bainbridge Island, WA
Greeting you in the island's main shopping district is the spacious and well-stocked Eagle Harbor Book Co.
What I particularly liked was that they had such huge shelves of staff picks front and center in the store. This is right across from the sales desk.
During my short time on the island, I couldn't help but notice a few other points of literary interest.
If books and dogs are actually highly valued here, I can see why it was named the #2 place to live in America.
This display of books about Cuba was actually in Wildernest, an outdoor/camping/survival store. I assume they put this up after Obama made it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba, although Trump has since made it a little more difficult. Nevertheless, I am Cuban by marriage, so if all goes to plan, you'll be reading about my adventures in Cuba on here before long.
I did buy one book while I was on the island, A Permanent Guest's Illustrated Guide to Bainbridge Island by Sally Robison. However, I didn't buy it at the bookstore, but at an art gallery.
You've lost track of how long you've been driving the rental car ever more north on Route 5.
The mountains, once distant, now seem to be enveloping you. Surely you must be closing in on the US-Canadian border.
From the signs, you realize you're in Skagit County, a place you've only ever read of in Kerouac books. That means Desolation Peak is out there somewhere, but it's not accessible by road—Kerouac took a boat, horses, and mules to get there.
The bizarre shapes nestled into the bottom of a mountain range that you've seen from miles out reveal themselves to be Vancouver's skyscrapers.
They're equally as strange up close with their turquoise hue, but you assume that otherworldliness must be why William Gibson finds this place so comforting.
There's plenty to see in Vancouver, and in fact, you wish you had more time to take it all in.
You're feeling mesmerized just staring at the North Shore Mountains, nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the city.
But time is short, and you need to get back to the United States.
Nevertheless, there's always a little time for a bookstore, right? Chapters seems to be the Barnes & Noble of Canada.
The store was massive, although the first floor was mostly non-books.
It may have been a chain bookstore, but I can safely say...
...this was the first time I ever encountered a section of books under the heading, "The World Needs More Canada." This trip occurred in April 2015. ---------------------------------------------------------- You're reading this, so it's time to admit it: You’ve been one–a bookstore hobo. Lingering too long among shelves of books. Sitting between the aisles reading a book you know you don’t have the money to buy, and thinking to yourself, “Oh, if I could only stay here forever.” So why don't you read my novella The Bookstore Hobos? Published in the Eunoia Review, The Bookstore Hobos is the story of Zaid, who tries to live in a bookstore when he finds himself unemployed. His adventures will take him to New York City, where he must attempt to apply what he's read to the real world. ----------------------------------------------------------
Joseph Patrick Pascale - How to Get a Promotion When Your Boss Is Trying to Kill You (Accurate Accounts of Office Work: Book 1), a comic literary novel coming from Waldorf Publishing on September 1, 2018.