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.