From the day it first opened in 1977, Secret Garden Books has been an essential part of Seattle’s bookselling community. Founded by children’s book author Nancy White Carlstrom in its original location across from the wading pool at Green Lake Park, Secret Garden was one of a handful of bookstores in the country that only carried children’s books.
Right from the start, “it was a beloved bookstore,” explains current Secret Garden owner Christy McDanold. Seattle kids immediately adored Secret Garden. From the clicketyclacking of the unmortared brick floor to the thousands of colorful picture books to the young staff dedicated to sharing fun and educational children’s literature, a trip to the shop felt downright magical — a rare destination just for kids.
McDanold was familiar with Secret Garden because she had worked with children for her entire adult life — she ran child care programs for the YMCA and headed a citywide tutoring program through the Central Area Youth Association — but nothing felt like a perfect fit until she saw that Secret Garden was up for sale. With financial help from her mother, McDanold bought the shop on April 26, 1995. “It was one of the most exciting times of my life,” she says.
McDanold moved the storefront to Ballard, first to 15th Avenue Northwest and then, on April 1, 2000, to its current location at 2214 N.W. Market St. That last move, McDanold explains, is when Secret Garden “became a full-service bookstore,” expanding its stock to carry a wide array of books for adults — though it still boasts the most robust children’s section in town.
Walk into Secret Garden today and you’ll see little reminders of its 45 years of history everywhere. In the front of the store, the clicketyclack of the brick floor transported from the shop’s original location serves as “an auditory trademark,” and a watercolor of the Green Lake storefront hangs by the cash register. You’ll also see handwritten staff recommendations on shelves throughout the store, written by Secret Garden’s staff of seven enthusiastic booksellers.
“The store has a long history of hiring college students under work-study programs,” McDanold says. (One of the shop’s longtime staffers, Becky, started in that program and never left Secret Garden.) But McDanold is especially impressed with her current team’s passion to continually keep up with the best new titles. On Tuesdays, when the new releases arrive, “there are always half a dozen or 10 shelf talkers ready to go out with those books. They’re just amazing readers, my staff.”
So what are the grown-ups of Ballard reading? “The neighborhood’s gotten younger. People in their 20s and 30s are a big growth area in Ballard,” McDanold explains. Those young people are why science fiction has been “one area of really significant growth for us” in recent years. Secret Garden also recently hired a bookseller with expertise in romance books, and he’s single-handedly built up customer interest in the genre, “so now we have a romance section that is doing pretty well.”
“Literary nonfiction has always done quite well for us, and paperback fiction’s always done very well, too,” McDanold says, “but 2021 was just a really, really, really good year for grown-up fiction. Last year, we sold more hardcover fiction than we’ve ever sold before — blew our old records out of the water.”
Before the pandemic, Secret Garden operated a network of book fairs in local public and private schools, bringing a wide selection of books and children’s book authors to Seattle-area kids of all ages. “The book fair allowed us to carry a much richer selection of kids books than we otherwise would be able to carry, knowing that school librarians were going to be also shopping that selection,” McDanold explains.
Secret Garden is working to bring book fairs back to schools once COVID-19 restrictions allow them to, but it’s going to be difficult to rebuild that network. “School librarians have been really demoralized,” McDanold says. “Seattle cut all their librarians a couple of years ago to half time, and they’re expected to do the same job that they did before.”
She’s hopeful that Secret Garden will be back in schools soon, to inspire the love of reading in a new generation of young Seattleites. Children who used to visit Secret Garden return to the store all the time now — as parents and grandparents introducing a new generation of readers to the store, as college students who used to participate in the Young Reader Society looking for a grown-up novel to read while visiting their parents on holiday break, and as authors bringing their own books into the world.
Hopefully this year, to mark the store’s 45th anniversary, Secret Garden’s calendar of author events will resume. Generations of beloved children’s book authors have made pilgrimages to Secret Garden, perhaps most notably the first author in the store’s Ballard location: “A Wrinkle in Time” author Madeleine L’Engle. “She sat in the older of our two rocking chairs and people knelt at her feet while she read. It was just amazing,” McDanold says.
One reading from children’s nonfiction author Ellen Levine was especially memorable: “she had the kids in the palm of her hand,” McDanold recalls. “One of the stories she told was about watching a farmer help a cow birth a calf. She told it so well! The kids were all grossed out, and they loved it.”
“I know at least one kid in that group ended up becoming a writer,” McDanold says. “That was just a powerful lesson about what you can do when you put creative people in front of kids.”
What are Secret Garden’s booksellers reading?
“I just finished reading ‘One Italian Summer,'” Secret Garden Books owner Christy McDanold announces. Rebecca Serle’s new novel about a grieving young woman who visits the charming seaside Italian village that her late mother loved in her youth, is “so much fun, it’s just going to be a great summer read.”
“Black & White,” Tana Hoban’s deceptively simple baby book, “is just perfect for the new baby,” McDanold says. Developing eyes are drawn to the book’s striking high-contrast compositions, helping infants recognize patterns and focus on objects. “I’m a new grandmother and I got to try it out on my granddaughter and she really responded to it.”
McDanold says Secret Garden bookseller Mary “just read and loved ‘The Sentence‘ ” by Louise Erdrich, a novel set in the Twin Cities that reflects on “the murder of George Floyd and the pandemic, so it’s very immediate.” Mary promises that “you will root for” Tookie, the bookseller at the center of the story.
Andrew, one of the newest booksellers at Secret Garden, loves the young adult novel “Golden Boys” by Phil Stamper — a story of four young queer boys on the cusp of a summer that will send them off in new directions. He also recommends Michelle Schusterman’s middle-grade novel “My Otter Half,” about a puppy and a baby otter who form a friendship in the wake of an oil spill in the Puget Sound. Andrew recommends the book for kids aged 8 to 12 and raves about its “heart and charm worthy of a Disney film.”