For a quarter century, Open Books: A Poetry Emporium has operated on the ground floor of a house in Wallingford. The space had been a hub for all of the many rays of Seattle’s poetic community – from avant-garde visual poetry nutcases to talkative spoken-word artists and the MFA’s more austere poet crowd. The store served as a launching pad for exciting Seattle poets like Quenton Baker and Don Mee Choi, and it hosted memorial services and celebrations of life for local poets like Joan Swift and Madeline DeFrees whose deaths impoverished Seattle.
For most of the time Open Books was Seattle’s only poetry bookstore, the shop felt immune to change. From almost the day it opened, it felt like Open Books had always served Seattle’s literary community, and always would. But in 2016, the shop’s founders, Christine Deavel and John Marshall, announced their retirement, and local poet Billie Swift bought the business. And in 2020, Swift successfully weathered its first real crisis by bringing Open Books’ stock online for the first time to serve customers during the pandemic.
Another crisis came late last year, when Deavel and Marshall finally decided to sell the Open Books property, uprooting the store. Swift ran a successful $50,000 crowdfunding campaign to cover the costs of the move, and just in time for National Poetry Month, Open Books opened in its new Pioneer Square location in the Good Arts Building. at 108 Cherry St.
“I saw this space on Craigslist and saw that there were art studios in the building,” Swift says, so she suspected the landlord might be supportive of the bookstore. Until recently, the storefront belonged to a tailor who had moved elsewhere in the neighborhood, “and the timing of his move coincided exactly with the time we were looking for a place.”
Early in talks with the potential landlord, Swift brought a few poets into the new space to sniff it out because “I didn’t know if there was anything missing. And then they came and watched it with me and we were all kind of beside ourselves.
It really sounds almost too good to be true: Open Books, impossible, somehow seems even more historic than ever. Admiring the exposed brick and cedar beams of the new space, longtime Seattleites who still miss the Elliott Bay Book Company’s original Pioneer Square location will likely feel a welcome whiff of deja vu.
“Our previous space had about 1,000 square feet of floor space and this one has 650,” Swift says, but the new store feels somehow bigger than the Wallingford location. “I loved this space and yet it was definitely a narrow hallway. I will miss it, but it was a different experience than I hope it will be.
The new floor plan is more comprehensive, with shorter shelves displaying half-price poetry books and titles by local authors at the front of the store spanning panoramic wall shelves. But the magic of the new location isn’t just about moving a few shelves: Open Books is also renting two ground-floor bedrooms that Swift hopes to turn into active community spaces.
One of these rooms, The Parlor, is a tastefully appointed parlor with a small conference table, a collection of recorded poetry readings, and bundles of old poetry journals and book collections. Swift has already started booking poetry lessons for the venue, but it’s perfectly sized for book clubs, writing groups, or just places where people can come and read poetry to each other.
At the back of the building is a more utilitarian room with shelves of paper, tape, and scissors. “We call it the print shop, and people can come and print chapbooks and zines in a creative space,” Swift says. She envisions a sort of creative space for poets, where groups can set aside time to work on special projects like literary reviews or poster campaigns.
“What I hope with the two spaces,” Swift says, “is to empower people to be somewhere else in a way that makes them feel good.”
Open Books has been slowly reopening in its new space all month. Swift says that “with the pandemic, it didn’t seem like the right time to have a grand opening party,” but it’s easy to imagine the store packed with people on one of the huge art walks on the first Thursday of Pioneer Square with a reading in the main space, an artist reception in the lounge and a screen printing demonstration in the print shop.
The space is a bustling community center in the heart of Seattle’s literary community. The only question now is whether people will show up. Swift is hopeful. The Wallingford Open Books were on a main thoroughfare in one of Seattle’s less walkable stretches. As she set up the new store, Swift said, “I’ve heard so many people walk by and say how excited they are that there’s a bookstore. I can tell there will be a ton of more foot traffic.
Swift took the opportunity to experiment with the store formula: for the first time, Open Books offered a few items that weren’t poetry books or magazines. The shop has a small selection of blank books and journals, and also sells Seattle poet Michelle Peñaloza’s handmade chunky earrings, which feature a huge range of colors, textures and tiny depictions of cats. and boba tea. “I’ve found great joy in these earrings throughout the pandemic,” Swift says, and she thinks they’ll help entice passers-by.
Sometimes at Open Books, casual browsers cringe when they realize they’re in an all-poetic bookstore. Swift thinks this moment is an invitation to a conversation. “I like that response,” she says, because “often we can help them find something they like,” even if they’ve never bought a poetry book in their adult life. . In the new space, Swift says, “I think there will be a lot more of that.”
What do Open Books customers read?
Billie Swift, owner of Open Books, says one of the biggest bestsellers the store has seen is “Customs», the second collection of Solmaz Sharif. The title alludes to both the traditions the Iranian-American poet grew up with and the dehumanizing bureaucratic process of arriving in a new country.
open books runs a book subscription service which mails outstanding new poetry collections to annual subscribers on a monthly or bimonthly basis. The most recent program selection is a beautifully illustrated book published by Olympia rising press The 3rd thing which features two prominent Seattle poets, Paul Hlava Ceballos and Quenton Baker. Baker’s contribution, “We Pilot the Blood,” is a startling poem of erasure taken from U.S. Senate documentation of an 1841 slave ship revolt (an almost entirely blacked-out page reveals only the words “they/could/ couldn’t/kill/the/sunrise/in/me.”) and “Banana [ ]similarly draws on the historical record to tell a harrowing story of labor, exploitation, colonization and violence centered around the banana trade.
Kary Wayson, a beloved Seattle poet who joined Open Books as a bookseller this year, recently perused Daisy Fried’s collection.”The year the city emptied.” Fried started translating Baudelaire’s works into English, “then she just took off and started doing her own versions of him. I don’t really know Fried’s other work, but this book brought me to tears,” Wayson says.