By my informal count, Seattle now has more independent neighborhood bookstores than it did at the beginning of the pandemic. This is a remarkable piece of good news, and a testament to the people of Seattle: They made a point of supporting neighborhood booksellers at a time when nobody was leaving the house and online commerce was growing exponentially.
But as we move into a New Normal, some local booksellers are reporting a slower-than-typical fall, with decreased foot traffic and the lowest sales figures of the pandemic. Nobody is exactly sure why this is — perhaps it’s inflation, or maybe it’s recession fears, or it could just be simple complacency.
When it comes to bookstores, Seattle is spoiled for choice. We have more excellent neighborhood bookshops than most American cities, and so it’s easy to take their benefits for granted: the author events, book clubs and — perhaps most important — their personalized book recommendations, which no online retailer’s algorithm could ever replicate. To demonstrate their unique power of discovery and curation, we collected 10 holiday gift recommendations from four of the Seattle area’s very best bookstores.
Ingrid Miller, Three Trees Books
Ingrid Miller at Three Trees Books in Burien recommends “Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals,” a book that helps to clarify why bookstores are so valuable in an age of relentless efficiency and ruthless streamlining.
In an effort to encourage readers to stop worrying about time management and start worrying about the quality of their time, “Four Thousand Weeks” surveys “all the major philosophers of human history, explained in very accessible writing that helps you think about your life in a bigger way,” Miller explains.
And the book unspools the idea of “convenience culture and how you lose literally the meaning of life when it’s too easy to live,” she says. When technology provides everything you need at any given moment, “that lack of human interaction takes away all the joy, too, and all the meaning.”
And Miller has also been obsessed with the novel “The Anomaly,” a French thriller that blurs genres in a mysterious narrative about a supernatural accident that befalls a passenger jet. “It’s all the things: multilayered, literary, propulsive fiction that’s also really readable,” Miller promises. “It’s a pretty reliable gift: It’s not expensive, and whoever you give it to will probably enjoy it.”
Michelle Bear, Edmonds Bookshop
Michelle Bear at Edmonds Bookshop is excited about a cookbook called “Mamacita,” from a local author named Andrea Pons. “She grew up eating all of her family’s fantastic Mexican dishes,” Bear explains, “and when she was faced with deportation, she kept turning back to these recipes for solace and hope.”
For those looking for a personalized gift, Edmonds Bookshop will carry autographed copies of “Mamacita” in stock through the holidays. Pons is devoting “the proceeds to continue to help her family, and we’re very proud to help support that effort,” Bear says.
Bear also loves Joanna Quinn’s novel “The Whalebone Theatre,” the story of a self-reliant and imaginative young woman who “creates a theater from a whale skeleton with the help of her brother and sister.” The story is just as imaginative as its protagonist, involving spycraft, World War II and Dickensian children carving wondrous worlds out of the mundane. “It’s a beautifully told story about the idea of finding your own family wherever you are,” Bear says.
Christina Gilbreath, The Wise Owl Books & Music
In just 11 months, Tangletown’s The Wise Owl Books & Music has become a destination for Seattle-area lovers of science fiction. Owner Christina Gilbreath was an early local proponent of Becky Chambers’ sweetly philosophical novella “A Psalm for the Wild-Built,” about a tea-making monk on an alien world who befriends a curious robot, and she calls the second Monk & Robot book, “A Prayer for the Crown-Shy,” ”even better than the first one — a feel-good light read.”
Gilbreath also recommends “Ordinary Monsters,” by a Vancouver, B.C., author who writes under the pen name J.M. Miro. “It’s kind of a Wild West meets the X-Men story, with the Pinkertons and kids with superpowers,” and she praises the book for its strong female characters.
“Another new novel by a local author is ‘Leech’ by Hiron Ennes. It’s about a hive-mind virus, which people might not be into, with the pandemic and all,” Gilbreath admits, “but I thought it was a fascinating read.”
Tom Nissley, Phinney Books
Tom Nissley and his staff of brilliant booksellers at Phinney Books have specialized in unearthing expertly crafted literature from small presses and lost masterpieces from literary history.
The staff has recently been soothed and delighted by “Shadows on the Rock,” one of “My Ántonia” author Willa Cather’s last novels. “It’s a charming fall/winter novel with a nice Christmas scene,” Nissley says. “It’s set in French colonial Québec at the end of the 17th century after the first wave of explorers and priests and trappers have settled into the New World a little bit.”
For readers who have been traumatized by bad news, social media and stressful political books, Nissley promises that “Shadows on the Rock” is a gentle story in which “nothing bad happens. It’s a quiet charmer.”
When Nissley announces his favorite novel of the year, Seattle’s readers have learned to sit up and take notice. His current favorite for 2022 is “Diary of a Film” by Niven Govinden, a novel about a director spending three days at a film festival promoting his latest movie. Nissley praises the book for being “so good at getting inside his head and also exploring the way your own head exists in connection with other people — especially as a collaborative artist. So it’s just a great book about creativity.”
Govinden’s descriptions “made me want to see this guy’s movies, even though I know that they’re fictional and have never existed,” Nissley says, ”and it’s a very positive story that really believes in the creative act,” convincing readers to believe in the act of creation, collaboration and building something greater than yourself. Like all the books these booksellers recommended, it’s a story about the intersection of imagination, curiosity and community.