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.
The sailorettes sang Rum and Coca-Cola while I browsed through books on anti-colonialist movements and Wiccan feminism. (Left Bank also has Stieg Larsson mysteries, Toni Morrison novels and plenty of “mainstream” lit.) I hesitated over the F-bomb T-shirt. Profane, yes, but it’s what every English professor secretly wants to holler at every quasi-literate college student. I imagined wearing it around campus at Florida State University, where I teach. Then I imagined the awkward meeting I’d undoubtedly have with the dean. I put the shirt back and bought a button that says “Union Thug” and a copy of Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues.
Alexie lives in Seattle, as do his fellow National Book Award winner Timothy Egan, PEN/Faulkner Award winner David Guterson, travel writer Jonathan Raban, thriller novelist Nicola Griffith, cooking memoirist Kathleen Flinn, cyberpunk fabulist Neal Stephenson, poet Emily Warn — it’s a dauntingly long list. Why does this place grow so many writers? Something in the water? “It’s dark here a lot,” says novelist Urban Waite, a Seattle native. “Dark and wet. We’re forced to engage our own imaginations.”
Maybe it’s the aloof, mystical Mount Rainier, a visible (unless the clouds hide it) emblem of the sublime and a live volcano, that inspires so much literary creation. Maybe it’s the Omega 3s. Seattle is a salmon town, too. They’re everywhere, stylized in Native American art, laid out seductively on cushions of ice like piscine centerfolds, undulating and bright as quicksilver in the green water of Ballard locks and, of course, on the menu. Salmon is brain food; I swear that just walking through Pike Place Market, eating the samples of alder wood smoked coho the fishmongers hand out, my IQ went up a few points.
That evening, it may have gone up a couple more, though I may have also killed off some brain cells with several glasses of the peppery and fragrant Columbia Valley Cabernet that accompanied the Salmon Sampler plate at Ivar’s Salmon House on the shores of Lake Union. Founded in 1938 by Ivar Haglund, a one-time folk singer who used to go around with a pet seal named Patsy, Ivar’s is a replica of a longhouse, decorated with totem poles and old photographs of Chief Seattle (Si’ahl) and his daughter Kikisoblu. The restaurant’s simultaneously gorgeous and kitschy, but the fish is nothing but exquisite, the salmon ranging in color from delicate rose to deep carnelian.
Seattle reminds me a bit of London. The rain, yes, but also the sense that the city is actually made up of a lot of idiosyncratic villages that gradually grew together into a crazy quilt of a metropolis. On my second day in the city, I hauled myself up to Capitol Hill, where Victorian mansions with rainbow flags hanging from their balconies nestle beside paint-peeling Beaux-Arts theaters and coffee shops.
There’s no capitol on Capitol Hill: The name may have been an attempt to lure state government from Olympia. There is, however, a hill, 400-plus feet high. This seems right, since Capitol Hill is the Parnassus of Seattle cool: Dan Savage, the author and sex columnist, lives here. The Richard Hugo House, a literary arts center with a writer-in-residence and community workshops where anyone can take a writing course, is there right across from Cal Anderson Park. Grunge was born here; native son Jimi Hendrix is commemorated with a statue at East Pine and Broadway. And, of course, there’s a great bookstore.
I wanted to kiss the polished wooden floor the minute I walked into the Elliott Bay Book Co. It smells of ink and paper (and coffee and cherries — there’s a good cafe in the back), and it glistens with new books; books you’ve heard of and books you didn’t know existed. Like Washington’s Kramerbooks, Books and Books in Miami, or Square Books in Oxford, Miss., Elliott Bay is intelligently curated. Not that the staff here have to look far afield: the names in the “Local Authors” also show up as “Editors’ Picks,” on literary prize nomination announcements and in “best of” lists.
I accosted Alan Brandsted, the nice guy at the cash register, wanting to know how a bookstore like this survives when mega-merchants such as Borders have gone bankrupt and independents such as Partners and Crime in New York and Atlanta’s presciently-named Chapter 11 Books have closed.
“We are hyper-aware of the Amazon empire,” he said. “Sometimes people come in and look around, then buy online.” He pointed to Elliott Bay’s browser-friendliness and impressive author appearances: Colson Whitehead was due in a few days, and Rick Bass, Laurie Frankel and Maria Semple a few weeks later. “We see ourselves as a resource. Come in here, and something might be revealed.”
Something was revealed: Driving Home, Jonathan Raban’s love song to the Pacific Northwest, is the best kind of travel writing — unsentimental, self-deprecating and deeply romantic. I also bought Urban Waite’s elegantly scary The Terror of Living, a thriller that has been compared to Cormac McCarthy’s dark novels.
As I was laying down my debit card, still contemplating why Seattle would be such fertile ground for the imagination, another revelation — or at least a suggestion — came my way. “Excuse me,” said a young man in a black T-shirt. “I couldn’t help overhearing. If you’re visiting Seattle, you have to go to Fremont. You have to see the troll.”
“Troll,” I repeated, thinking of the snarksters who try to inflame Internet discussions.
“Under the bridge,” he said. “I’ll give you directions.”
Located between the University District and the old Scandinavian fishing village of Ballard, Fremont is one of the holy sites of hipsterdom. Annexed to Seattle in 1891, it has an unofficial motto that’s said to be “De Libertas Quirkas,” (almost) Latin for “Freedom to be Peculiar.” That might explain the statue of Lenin at the corner of Evanston Avenue and North 36th. Vladimir Ilyich had been consigned to a dump during the Velvet Revolution in what was then Czechoslovakia, but a Fremonter rescued him and brought him home.
I headed down North 36th until I came to the Aurora Bridge. Underneath it was the troll, emerging out of the rock: 20 feet high, bare-chested, long-bearded and one-eyed, like the Norse god Odin, except that his eye is a hubcap. He was created in 1990 from wire, steel rebar and two tons of concrete by four local sculptors, aided and abetted by Fremont’s community-run Arts Council. In his huge gnarled hand he clutches a real Volkswagen Beetle.
No wonder Seattle seduces both writers and readers: The city loves its paradoxes, embracing the magical (even if it’s tongue-in-cheek) and celebrating its rich cultural microclimates, where a love of the weird, a healthy respect for irony and a desire for stories can grow wild as poppies.
Small children climbed on the Beetle and up the old guy’s long beard to have their pictures taken. I bowed to the troll and decided that it was about time for a glass of something to help fuel my own creative fires. Searching for a bar, I came across yet another bookstore. Since it’s usually the other way around, I took this for a sign. There was a gray cat in the window. I walked inside.
Roberts teaches creative writing at Florida State University. Her most recent book is “Dream State,” a historical memoir of Florida.