Back to Guides


A book lover's paradise

King’s Books host the letterpress extravaganza Wayzgoose every April. Photo credit: Pappi Swarner

Recommend Article
Total Recommendations (0)
Clip Article Email Article Print Article Share Article

By some standards, Seattle is the most literate city in the United States. Its ratio of college graduates approaches three out of five adults. Its libraries get used more frequently than most cities', and South Lake Union-based Amazon is the national bookstore of choice. Portland just missed the top 10 among cities of comparable size. Perhaps our love of books has something to do with all those rainy days, or how good it feels to sip a latte while easing into the warm spiritual bath of a magnificent novel. If you like reading, you'll find you're in supportive company in the Pacific Northwest.

I've enjoyed the privilege of reading fiction, mine and others', in a variety of bookstores around Western Washington. Each has its own particular charm. And while I do love the all-quadrants appeal of a well-stocked Barnes & Noble, it seems the most delightful bookstores around are the dusty, musty independents. They possess an idiosyncratic charm that not even a perfect Frappuccino at a mega-chain's co-branded Starbucks can replace.

Consider, for example, King's Books, in Tacoma (at 218 St. Helens Ave.), which has stacks a person could get lost in for hours. The store hosts frequent readings - even plays. (A 2014 production of Genet's The Maids was a huge and well-executed after-hours success.) Or check out The Nearsighted Narwhal (2610 6th Ave.), a shop devoted to works by local authors including yours truly. The Narwhal boasts an ongoing partnership with area writers' collective Creative Colloquy, and its inventory of local zines is unparalleled.

Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon is America’s largest independent bookstore. Courtesy photo

In Olympia, there's a bookstore to fit every passion. Orca Books (509 4th Ave. E.) is my venue of choice, thanks to its select stock of affordable hand-me-down books. It's a trade-off: while Orca doesn't always have the volume I came in to buy, I'll walk out with a half-dozen others, each equally promising. Meanwhile, those happy pinkos at Last Word Books have occupied their new and voluminous space at 111 Cherry St. NE. If you've ever aspired to feel like the least socially conscious person in a room, Last Word is a great place to start.

Seattle has scads of great bookstores, but a standout is the 525 S. Weller St. location of Kinokuniya, a Tokyo-based chain that carries both English- and Japanese-language items like mountains of manga. (If you're headed south, there's another location at 10500 SW Beaverton on the southwest side of Portland.) Two thumbs up for Cinema Books in Seattle's U (University District, that is, at 4753 Roosevelt Way NE). This store specializes in books about movies, along with hundreds of screenplays. If you think you know more about cinema than store owner Stephanie Ogle, exactly one of two things is true: you're either Quentin Tarantino or you're wrong. My money's on the latter.

Maybe you feel specific genres aren't as important as aimless browsing. Is there any more chicken-soupy pasttime for the soul than letting one's fingers drift down a row of unfamiliar book spines? Ooh, Raymond Carver, he's terrific. And what about that Jennifer Egan I've heard so much about? Say, is that an entire room full of vintage sci-fi paperbacks? My cousin keeps telling me about Iain Banks and Robert J. Sawyer. I should look for a copy of Carter Beats the Devil to replace the one I gave away! For such tranquil afternoon diversions, turn to Arundel Books (at its new location, 214 1st Ave. S.) and The Elliott Bay Book Company (1521 10th Ave.). Both offer room after room full of stocked and sturdy shelves, plus readers' groups, author performances and periodicals from around the globe. Arundel even has its own small-print press.

In Ballard, Jeopardy! champ Tom Nissley opened Phinney Books (7405 Greenwood Ave. S) last spring in the shell of the former (and dearly missed) Santoro's. It has limited space but promises all the NYRB (The New York Review of Books) Classics you can cram into your eye holes. Next time you scale the summit of Queen Anne Hill, catch your breath in the marvelously crowded little Queen Anne Book Company (1811 Queen Anne Ave. N.) before diving into that neighborhood's plethora of unforgettable restaurants.

My friend and fellow book nerd Ned Hayes, author of current bestseller Sinful Folk, recommends Ada's Technical Books and Café (425 15th Ave. E.), which houses not only an amazing collection of computer lit but also SF, biographies, kids' books and other diversions. It hosts a monthly puzzle club, which specializes in brainteasers like the "Adalogical Aenigma." He names Village Books & Paper Dreams in Bellingham (1200 11th St.) as his favorite bookstore in Washington, and says Auntie's Bookstore in Spokane is "God's gift to bookstores." Auntie's certainly hosted major names in recent years, Gregory Maguire and Mary Roach among them, and has signed editions on sale to show for it.

Visitors to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon are well advised to schedule time for the Tudor Guild Gift Shop (15 S. Pioneer St.), which doubles as a theater bookstore. If you enjoyed the play you saw that afternoon, you can probably take home and read the script that night. And of course, any article about Pacific Northwest bookstores would be worthless without a tribute to the one, the only, the galactically enormous Powell's City of Books (1005 W. Burnside St., Portland). It's a city of books, people. Legend has it a Minotaur lurks near the fourth-floor customer service desk, but nobody's ever seen the whole place, so who knows? They should offer tram rides to the front counter for customers who may otherwise die along the way. One side of the third floor is in Mountain Time. I'm telling you: this bookstore is huge. They offer cookbooks so old and comprehensive, one of their steps is "invent fire." Powell's alphabetical order begins with aleph and an Egyptian bird. If Powell's doesn't have the book you want, ask a clerk to point you to the billion monkeys rewriting it in the second-floor Purple Room. And pack two meals! And new shoes!

Happy reading, everybody! I'll see you in the stacks.

comments powered by Disqus

Site Search