Seattle is a book town in an e-reader world, proud of its devotion to real books and real bookstores. Books are big business here: Amazon began its campaign for world domination in Seattle in 1994 and is still based here. Yet despite the Northwest’s haute-techiness (Microsoft’s headquarters is just across Lake Washington, too), Seattle still loves paper and print.
“Books are a great technology,” says Erin Belieu, poet and artistic director of the Port Townsend Writers Conference up on the Olympic Peninsula. “They have a warmth that’s both metaphysical and actual: Who has an image of herself curling up with a Kindle on a rainy day?”
Lord knows, they’ve got rainy days around here. I’d traveled here from the soul-sapping heat of the East Coast, where a 30-second stroll to the mailbox produced enough sweat to float a shrimp boat. The fresh, sharp mist off Puget Sound felt wonderful. I’d been invited to teach a seminar in nonfiction at Port Townsend, but since it was three days before I needed to report for duty, I figured that exploring Seattle’s dozens of book emporia was a fine way to limber up for a week of discussing memoir, metaphor and the tricky boundaries of the “reality-based community.”
I was staying near Pike Place Market, so I headed there first. A cross between a Lucullian feast and a garage sale in a labyrinth, the market began in 1907 when Seattleites, outraged over the high price of onions, encouraged local farmers to sell their crops directly to the public. The farmers parked their wagons at the corner of First Avenue and Pike Street, above the tide flats, and drew huge crowds of shoppers. A century later, the shoppers are still coming, not just for onions but also Westphalian sausages, vinyl 45s, sturgeon fillets, beeswax hand cream and tarot cards.
And books: Lion Heart (on one of the market’s lower levels) has an excellent selection of children’s books that goes way beyond Harry Potter. Deeper in the maze, I came upon an edgier book store, BLMF, which calls itself “a literary saloon.” The letters of its name stand for what the proprietor’s brother, looking at the books silting up his apartment, would exclaim. To wit: “You got books like a [expletive ]!”
Can’t argue with that. The shop, on a lower level of Pike Place Market, isn’t big, but it’s stacked with a serious selection of fiction, philosophy and social issues, with authors from Mumia Abu-Jamal to Howard Zinn. Customers should not expect to be coddled. A card in the window reads: “If you don’t like my prices, take your sorry [behind] down to Borders.”
Hostile signage is something of a cultural trope in Seattle’s bibliophile community. Left Bank Books stocks a T-shirt that shouts “Read a [expletive] book!” Left Bank, a cooperative founded in 1973 and owned by its workers, takes a similarly combative stance about the tension between money-making and the life of the mind. The sign on the cash register says, “This is a symbol of imperialism.”
To get into Left Bank’s front door, I had to navigate around a woman selling peonies the size of dinner plates and a trio of lissome young buskers in abbreviated sailor suits singing 1940s Andrews Sisters hits. It was another one of those opulent Seattle juxtapositions: walking down First Avenue, I’d seen a posse of cyclists protesting the use of fossil fuels, nude except for their helmets. They obligingly slowed down so that people on the duck-shaped tour bus could take pictures.