About eight years ago, Phinney Ridge resident Tom Nissley spent a long winter’s night catching up with two old friends who now worked at independent bookstores. Nissley was no stranger to books and bookselling: After graduating from the University of Washington with a Ph.D. in English, he worked as an editor for Microsoft and Amazon, eventually founding the online booksellers’ Omnivoracious blog, which hosted author interviews, book reviews and literary news. And he had just published “A Reader’s Book of Days,” a lively reference book cataloging literary anecdotes and trivia for every day of the year.
But that conversation with booksellers inspired something new in Nissley. “At the end of the evening, I said to my wife, ‘I think I’d like to own a bookstore someday.’ I had never said that before in my life,” he explains over the phone. “And then the next morning I got an email that our neighborhood bookstore was up for sale.”
Santoro’s Books had been serving the Phinney Ridge community from a 1,200-square foot storefront at 7405 Greenwood Ave. for nearly a decade, and Nissley had grown accustomed to having a neighborhood bookstore. “At that point it was just a series of me not saying no to anything,” Nissley laughs. He invested some of the funds he recently won as an eight-time “Jeopardy!” champion into the shop “and within a matter of months, I was the owner and operator of Phinney Books.”
Phinney Books is a gorgeously appointed space, with well-worn overstuffed leather chairs and a bookcase in the children’s section shaped like a boxcar. Browsers can easily discern the fiction sections from the nonfiction books: On the right hand wall of the store, new customers often stop short at the sight of a large sign identifying the books beneath it as “TRUE.” When they look to the left, they see that another large sign demarcates the “MADE-UP” titles.
Nissley says owning a bookstore is “a supersubtle ongoing dialogue” with the community, and that a bookseller’s ultimate goal should be “learning what the neighborhood wants. I always wanted it to be a neighborhood bookstore,” Nissley says. “Especially because I’m coming from Amazon, which is very much the opposite.”
As an example of the community shaping the store, Nissley says the children’s graphic novel section has more than doubled in size since Phinney Books opened, and neighborhood interest in the nature section has exploded during the pandemic. “Trees are superhot right now,” Nissley laughs. “They’ve been around a long time, but it’s clearly their moment.” And since the earliest days of lockdowns, Phinney Books has “become a puzzle hotbed,” with the whole front of the store taken up with a wide variety of beautiful and challenging jigsaw puzzles. “We often wonder if we’re going to have to change our name to Phinney Books ‘n’ Puzzles,” Nissley says.
Along with its sibling store Madison Books, Phinney Books offers one of the best browsing experiences in Seattle. Spend more than five minutes in the shop and your eye is almost guaranteed to be drawn to some small, beautifully designed small press title that you can’t find on the shelf in any other bookshop in town — the book that you didn’t know existed but which was absolutely meant to find you in this moment.
The heart and soul of Phinney Books, and probably the reason why its selection is so superior, is Phinney By Post, a book subscription program that Nissley calls “my passion project.” Every month, the staff of Phinney Books selects one book to send to subscribers. “We alternate between fiction and nonfiction, so you can subscribe for the whole year and get one book each month, or you can just choose to do fiction or nonfiction” and get a book every other month, Nissley explains. A children’s picture book version of Phinney by Post is available for young book-lovers.
With each Phinney By Post pick, “I really try to find a book that will have broad appeal, but that my subscribers won’t have read,” Nissley says. The program started about seven years ago and Phinney By Post has at last count sent 85 titles to subscribers. The display in the store devoted to past Phinney By Post picks is the shop’s most fertile browsing territory, full of intriguing small-press titles that never hit The New York Times Bestseller List.
The ideal Phinney By Post selection is a well-written, transporting story told in a compelling, singular voice. Past elections include a historical novel about an insurrection in a segregated southern town originally published in 1901; lesser-known works by popular writers including China Miéville, John McPhee, and Jamaica Kincaid; and bracing biographical accounts of American con artists and labor lawyers. “The Queen’s Gambit,” Walter Tevis’s novel about a gifted chess player, was the second-ever Phinney By Post selection a full five years before its adaptation became a breakout Netflix miniseries.
“That’s kind of our little in-house game,” Nissley says, “to discover stuff that nobody else knows anything about” but which contemporary readers will adore.
For Nissley, books have become his way to learn about and communicate with his neighbors. “I love books, and so books are half the pleasure” of running Phinney Books, he says. “But the other half of the pleasure of having this place is being at the heart of my neighborhood and getting to know people in a way that I never expected.”
“I lived in the neighborhood for more than a decade and hardly knew anybody, and now I can’t go down the street without saying hi to someone,” Nissley says. “I’m lucky to work around books and to work with good people, but by far the greatest blessing of it all — not to sound too Fred Rogers about it — has been to be a person in my neighborhood.”
What are Phinney Books customers reading?
You can’t miss Phinney Ridge author Karen Gaudette Brewer’s pocket-sized field guide to local trees, “Northwest Know-How: Trees” at Phinney Books. It’s right there on the front counter next to the registers, where customers can absent-mindedly scoop it up, leaf through the sumptuous illustrations by Emily Poole, and add it to their stack of books. “It’s been a huge seller for us,” says Tom Nissley, the owner of Phinney Books.
“My favorite thing is to find forgotten older books that I can unearth, and make them seem contemporary to people,” Nissley says. One such lost classic that captured Nissley’s attention is “A Different Drummer,” the 1962 debut novel set in a fictional southern American state by forgotten Black novelist William Melvin Kelly. The book opens with a bold premise — ”all the Black residents of the state in the space of a week have left and moved north,” Nissley explains, “And the story is told from the perspectives of the white residents basically trying to figure out what’s happened.”
Like another novel from the same time, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Nissley says “Drummer” clearly assesses the complex legacy of racism in the South but maintains “a bit of optimism that things might change. But what’s interesting about Kelly is that that optimism didn’t last very long,” Nissley continues. “By the late 1960s, the stuff he was writing was incredibly dark, and I think he became an expatriate.”
One of the biggest recent hits of the Phinney By Post subscription program is Norwegian author Tarjei Vesaas’ novel about a child who goes into the wintry woods in search of her missing friend, “The Ice Palace.” “It’s the best book I’ve read in the last five years,” Nissley says.
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