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Driving through the 99 tunnel, a road that stretches through Seattle, if you pay attention you will notice on your left-hand side of the tunnel’s concrete walls graffiti which reads “Fuck Bezos”. This graffiti refers to multi-billionaire Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon. Amazon completely reshaped the way we shopped online and more to the point how people bought books. In its wake, many towns and cities lost their bookshops—both independent and chain—as people simply clicked to buy their books at a hugely reduced price and got the books delivered direct to their homes. Amazon also pushed the e-reader into new territory with the development of the Kindle.
These two developments have also had a curious effect in pushing those remaining bookshops in cities around the world to make themselves something more than just bookshops. Similarly, the art of the book has received something of a boost in recent years as people have begun to reject their flat Kindles in favour of the physical book. This development is part of a wider pushback against hyper-digitisation of all our media experiences the rise of vinyl being another striking example.
In that spirit, while I was in Seattle recently I took time to visit many of the city’s independent bookshops that seem to be thriving despite being home to Amazon. One of the more curious neighbourhoods in Seattle is Ballard. A long-time residential area popular with the city’s Scandinavian population, it has a thriving main street—Northwest Market Street—brimming with record stores, coffee houses, bars, and Secret Garden Books.
Operating since 1977, Secret Garden is especially strong on children’s books, boasting a wide range of books for children of all ages. It also runs four book clubs – one for graphic novels, one aimed at teens, one for young readers and one for adults. A light and bright bookshop, it was easy to pass time in there and the women who ran the shop were especially nice.
A little further down Northwest Market Street you can also find a branch of Twice Sold Tales—the original bookshop is in Capitol Hill near downtown Seattle. In a city that loves a happy hour in its bars, Twice Sold Tales has its own happy hour offering 25% off books from 6-9pm. Capitol Hill is Seattle’s LGBTQ+ quarter.
Also in the Capitol Hill area you’ll find The Elliott Bay Book Company a huge bookshop boasting over 150,000 titles and laid out with cedar bookshelves, the Elliott Bay Book Company had an exceptionally good poetry section as well as a great selection of books on the Seattle and general Pacific Northwest Area. It is in fact and almost overwhelmingly large space, a little too neat perhaps. A very orderly bookshop, but missing a little of the tumbledown charm that makes an independent bookshop an experience.
Magus Books, situated in the city’s University District has this charm in abundance however. I visited this bookshop on a local recommendation—it wasn’t on my original list of bookshops to visit in Seattle. It turned out to be one of the best. On a scorching hot day, after a quick trip to the University of Washington’s own bookshop and to Bulldog News (one of Seattle’s few dedicated newsagents), Magus books announced itself with a stack of boxes and rolling shelves outside it’s doors with an array of strange and esoteric titles.
The window display was equally eclectic and inside, there was row upon row of used and rare books on subjects ranging from fiction and poetry to Judaica, eastern religions and more. There was an enormous reference section with dictionaries—bilingual and monolingual in a wide range of languages as well as literature in languages including Japanese and Danish.
There was a slightly chaotic air with many books piled in boxes and the staff busily going about re-ordering shelves. Old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll music was being played loudly on the radio. It was a veritable Aladdin’s cave of books. The shelves were high and densely packed.
The overwhelming choice of different subjects at Magus is in contrast to the singular focus of Open Books in Wallingford. Open Books, which has been around for about twenty-five years, is a poetry-only bookshop. A single long room, with the comfy feel of a kind of basement, Open Books has a neat layout and comfortable chairs for sitting on while browsing.
The staff are knowledgeable, engaged and interested. The bookshop has regular events of readings and author Q&A’s, that begin from the Autumn. I might easily have spent all of my holiday money here alone.
This occasionally dazzling array of bookshops can feel to be in stark contrast to what in many places can seem like the continuing death of the bookshop. However, if Seattle—a smallish city by global standards with a population of 659,000—and the belly of the Amazon beast, can sustain a strong independent bookshop culture, there is hope for many cities in Ireland and elsewhere yet.