It’s a tiny storefront — just 500 square feet — but Wallingford bookstore Open Books has always been an especially inviting space. Its owner, Billie Swift, has watched people fall in love with the shop again and again.
“We are across the street from a physical therapy center,” Swift explains, and patients who are early for their appointments often wander into the shop. Swift says that she’s used to seeing the customers panic when they walk several feet inside and start browsing, only to realize that Open Books is a poetry bookstore — in fact, one of only two or three poetry-only bookshops in the country.
At first, “they’re terrified,” Swift laughs. But it doesn’t take very long for Swift or one of Open Books’ other two booksellers to strike up a conversation and make recommendations. They guide customers to the back of the shop, toward “what I believe to be the perfect reading chair,” Swift says. “We have a little table by it, and we love nothing more than sitting someone down and piling up a stack of books next to them.”
Swift says those accidental Open Books customers quickly learn that “their love of books in general means that they are perfectly at home in a poetry bookstore.”
But like every other bookstore in Washington in the time of social distancing, Open Books has been closed to the reading public for about a month. It’s particularly cruel for Open Books because April is National Poetry Month. In the springtime, the shop handles the sales for big-ticket poetry readings put on by Seattle Arts & Lectures and Hugo House. Swift says Independent Bookstore Day, which usually falls in April but has been postponed, “is a huge day for us, so that being gone is pretty devastating.”
With the bookstore closed down, Swift was forced to make a decision that had been hanging over the shop since she took over from original owners John Marshall and Christine Deavel in September 2016 — Open Books started selling books through its website. How could Open Books exist as an online space while still staying true to the shop’s thoughtful curation and personalized, inviting spirit?
“There’s obviously a lot of issues with online book shopping,” Swift explains. The warehouse workers at large online retailers often work in grueling conditions for rock-bottom wages in service of slashing prices for consumers “without mind for the human cost.” Swift wasn’t interested in putting the bookshop on “a hamster wheel trying to keep up with capitalism and its never-ending churn.”
So Swift guided Open Books online in a thoughtful, human way. She’s kept the staff on payroll, but instead of stocking shelves and greeting browsers as they walk through the door, they’re replicating the shop’s 10,000-title inventory online and answering customer emails. (“We added language to our site very much encouraging people to continue to email us,” Swift explained, “because we love sending long emails with way too many suggestions.”)
The first piece of Open Books’ stock to make the shift online was already underway before coronavirus struck: the shop’s extensive collection of “poetic treasures” — rare and out-of-print chapbooks, used books and journals.
From there, the staff had to prioritize which books to get online first. The selection process had kind of the feel of a community coming together to save its treasures from an inferno. They started with the newest books, the 2020 releases whose launch parties and reading tours have been disrupted by coronavirus. “It was just so heartbreaking to read how many poets were releasing books into the void of the pandemic,” Swift explains, “and so anyone who’d had a book released after January, we got those on [the site] first.”
From there, they’ve been adding titles that reflect Open Books’ world-famous curatorial process, highlighting indie presses, debut collections and staff recommendations.
You can feel the difference. Shopping for books on the Open Books website doesn’t perfectly replicate walking into the shop, but it feels true to the shop. It’s thoughtful, it’s got a human touch, and it’s entirely unlike other sterile, robotic online shopping experiences. Most importantly, it’s keeping Open Books’ commitment to its mission alive in uncertain times. “We’re doing a lot of work in order to support a community of poets and presses of poetry,” Swift says, “and it feels really good to get that work into as many hands as possible.”
Still, Swift misses going to her store every day. She can’t wait to pile books next to that comfortable chair for browsers again. And maybe most of all, she’s excited to host readings with rooms full of people again. Those are the best moments, she says: when poets read their latest work aloud for the first time, and they are “totally loved and celebrated — those moments I miss deeply.”
What are Open Books customers reading?
As Open Books has made the difficult transition to a digital space, Swift is pleased to find that people are still reading quality literature, and the latest releases. One of the big sellers lately is Victoria Chang’s collection of poetic obituaries, “Obit.” In her most recent appearance at Open Books, Chang read from the manuscript that would become “Obit,” and Swift says the reading “was so stunning, I was excited for the book.” It’s been selling so well since its April 7 release that Swift still hasn’t seen a physical copy.
Similarly, Cathy Park Hong’s new book of essays, “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning,” is another book that Swift “kept trying to sort of squirrel away [for herself] before everything happened, but we kept selling it and I wasn’t really able to.” The work of memoir and cultural criticism, which received lavish praise from no less a towering figure than “Citizen” author Claudia Rankine, offers a deep and nuanced exploration of what it means to be Asian American.
Swift says Leila Chatti’s poetry collection “Deluge” is another top seller right now. The book, which ties Chatti’s physical trauma — in her case, an unceasing bleeding that confounded doctors — to her own history of faith. Chatti, who was born to a mixed Catholic/Muslim couple, pairs holy and corporeal mysteries, drawing some deep conclusions about who we are and why we’re here.
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