Seattle is a city of readers. Whether they are turning pages while sipping their morning latte, waiting at the bus stop under a light drizzle, or lingering at their favorite bookstore late into the evening, it is easy to spot the many bibliophiles in this town. To truly understand the Emerald City, one must get a glimpse of its literary culture.
The average Seattleite may stop by Barnes and Noble for a quick fix but prefers to support local, independent bookstores. This should be no surprise, considering Seattle’s history of conscientious consumerism. From fair trade coffee beans to WTO protests, this is a city that cares about the moral consequences of its daily decisions.
The logic is simple: while homogenized chain bookstores offer price discounts, independent bookshops offer unique selections, respond to the desires of local readers, and often express a quirky personality or philosophy. Buying from the independents supports these bastions of literary individuality and motivates the publishing industry to produce eclectic material, encouraging freedom of expression.
Not persuaded by the politics of book buying? Then explore Seattle’s independent bookstores to get a better sense of the city. Independent bookstores often reflect the flavor of their neighborhood. Check out a few of the gems recommended below to soak in the local culture.
Seattle’s socialists, anarchists, and liberal intellectuals flock to Left Bank Books Collective. This nonprofit is run by a volunteer staff has a small but thought provoking selection. Just in case the political bent of the bookshop wasn’t apparent, they also sell t-shirts and bumper stickers with sassy liberal slogans. You don’t have to be liberal enjoy this shop, but you do have to have an open mind and a sense of humor. People-watching is almost as fun as the book browsing here and the shoppers don’t hesitate to start heated discussions. Afterwards, head over and grab a bite to eat or just explore nearby Pike Place Market.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Queen Anne Books’ cheerful and quaint atmosphere fits right in with the upscale neighborhood on top of Queen Anne hill. The selection here is mostly traditional, but you can find a few original staff picks. Queen Anne Books shows a lot of support for local authors, who often do readings at the store. The beautiful browsing space and friendly atmosphere will be appreciated by true lit lovers.
Seattleites love a good beer almost as much as they love literature. At the Library Bistro and Bookstore Bar at Madison and First, the two merge together. The food is decent, the drink is good and the prices are average. What people really come here for is the novelty of buying books while they drink their brew. With such a convenient downtown location, why not stop by for the fun of it?
These small independent bookstores tend to specialize, as is the case with several Seattle shops. Film geeks will love Cinema Books in the U. District, the home for new, used and rare scripts and books about the movies. Seattle Mystery Bookshop, located in Pioneer Square cater to a detective-story loving clientele. On First Hill, Beyond the Closet serves the substantial gay community of Seattle. Meanwhile, the claim to fame of Wide World Books and Maps in Wallingford is that they are the first travel-only bookstore in the country.
Finally, no discussion of Seattle’s independent bookstores is complete without mention of Elliot Bay Books. The store’s location in a brick and stone building in the Pioneer Square district creates a vintage charm (steer clear late at night though as it becomes vagrant-packed). Founded in 9873, Elliot Bay Books was the precursor to the trend of huge bookstores where customers can sit and read for hours. Unlike Barnes and Nobel, Borders, or Portland’s Powell’s, Elliot Bay stayed local.
Elliot Bay Books is also noteworthy for its large, unique selection, the educated and helpful (although often quite grungy) employees, and its impressive list of visiting authors. It is best to come when a reading or discussion is going on. Grab a cup of coffee downstairs at the Elliot Bay Café and listen to your favorite author, or jump into the post-reading discussion. Be sure to peruse the eclectic selection afterwards. You should devote at least a couple hours to getting pleasantly lost here; Elliot Bay Books is the epicenter of Seattle’s literary culture.
What & Where:
Left Bank Books (92 Pike Street; 206-622-0195)
Queen Anne Books (1811 Queen Anne Avenue North; 206-283-5624)
Library Bistro and Bookstore Bar (92 Madison Street; 206 – 624-3646)
Cinema Books (4753 Roosevelt Way; 206 – 547 – 7667)
Seattle Mystery Bookshop (117 Cherry Street; 206 – 587-5737)
Beyond the Closet (518 E Pike St; 206 – 322-4609)
Wide World Books and Maps (4411A Wallingford Ave N; 206 – 634-3453)
Elliot Bay Books (101 South Main Street; 206 – 624-6600)
Elizabeth Nelson is a freelance writer, traveler, bibliophile, and recent graduate of the University of Chicago. She grew up in Washington’s San Juan Islands and now makes her home in Seattle.