Seattle’s Wonderful Bookstores

I recently took a vacation to the Pacific Northwest, and the last stop on my trip was Seattle. I hadn’t done my usual detailed planning, and I had two and a half days to explore the city – plenty of time to see the best of what Seattle had to offer.

Of course I saw obligatory tourist sites like the Space Needle:

And the Pike’s Place Farmer’s Market:

But I also got to see a great selection of the city’s new and used bookshops.

I was staying in a charming boutique hotel called the MarQueen, in the Queen Anne district of the city.  The hotel is on the corner of Queen Anne and Mercer Streets, and just across from the hotel on Mercer Street was my very first Seattle bookshop find: Mercer Street Books

Mercer Street Books is run by a woman who keeps her independent bookstore immaculately clean, and cozy.  The warm wooden bookshelves are laid out in a simple, but inviting pattern. She knows her collection well and is passionate about books and the local Seattle book scene.  It was from a detailed conversation with her that the world of Seattle books opened up to me, because she provided me with the names and addresses of nearly all of the remaining shops I visited.

In the Pike Place Market district, I did stumble into one bookshop on my own: Left Bank Books which is a collective, co-op owned bookshop with leftist book sellers.  As they proclaim on their site: “We specialize in anti-authoritarian, anarchist, independent, radical and small-press titles.” While you’re there, you can purchase fun t-shirts like “No One For President” and similar fare.

But back to my magical list of the best bookshops… the nicest bookstore I visited while in Seattle had to be the Elliott Bay Book Company. Elliott Bay is one of those bookshops you go into and you never want to leave.  It has all of the terrific charm and appeal of an independent bookstore, with detailed staff picks and a wonderful set of “newly arrived” tables and an amazing staff, plus it is large enough to have such an great selection you could just wander the isles of the shop for days. 

As for me, I stumbled unwittingly into the Fran Lebowitz Reader and despite the fact that I was thousands of miles from New York City, I was compelled to purchase Ms. Lebowitz’s highly entertaining collection.  I wish I could claim that I continued to wander the bookstore for many more hours, but with my newfound treasure in my hands I immediately decamped in a nearby restaurant called Havana and ordered some house made guacamole and chips and proceeded to laugh myself silly with Ms. Lebowitz as my companion.

The next day, I took a more adventurous bus route (across the river from where I was staying) to the University District.  The “U” as it is called by the locals, has a bunch of cool, cheap-eats and two bookstores worth visiting.  The first is University Books which – as university bookstores go – is a good find.  The remainder tables in the front of the store when you first come in are worth carefully combing, the selections there were incredibly interesting and took me some time to wander through.  Next I’d again recommend reading through the staff picks, which are varied and include fiction and non-fiction.

Just down a little alleyway from the back entrance of University Books, you will find Magus Books. According to their website, “Magus Books is the oldest independent used book storefront in Seattle, having just celebrated 30 years buying and selling used and rare books. We have over 12,000 books online and over 80,000 in our store.” What I can tell you is that Magus books is JAM PACKED with books.  There are books on the shelves, books on tables, books on the floor – in short: there are books EVERYwhere in that store.  The store is rather small, and claustrophobic – but- the people who run the shop are knowledgeable.  If you are looking for something, they will be able to help you find it.  That said, if you are looking to just browse, this might not be the bookstore for you.  The shelves in this shop tower overhead, and the isles are small.

The very last stop on my personal tour of only some of Seattle’s magnificent bookshops ended with Arundel Books, in the downtown area. When you enter Arundel, you just feel like you are in a rare book shop with it’s spiral staircase in the center of the store leading to the upper floor.  But Arundel is used, new and rare books and you’ll find a pleasant combination of all three types.  The store is relatively small, but I got the impression from speaking to the person behind the counter that Arundel has a deep reserve of books (maybe in a warehouse?) that can be tapped by simply requesting a particular title.  I wasn’t looking for anything by the time I got to Arundel, since I had already packed my suitcase with all the other books I had found on my trip – including a very hefty tome I couldn’t part with at Powell’s in Portland.  But there it was on the front counter, just as I walked in the door, a non-fiction book I never knew I wanted to read: Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. The book was at least as much travel diary and anthropology text as it was about running, and after just a few pages, alas, I was hooked.

The best part of my Seattle book tour was that each bookstore had its own unique personality and was located in a different part of town.  Each district of Seattle could take a day to explore and I quickly realized that I enjoyed being in Seattle enough to want to go back again sometime.  Next time though, I’m going to have to leave a lot more room in my suitcase because I am sure I’ll find so many great books that need to come home with me.