“Welcome in,” says owner Chris Jarmick as a customer walks into BookTree, an independent bookstore in Kirkland. He gestures around the shop. “The kids section is in the back, we sell new books, and we’ve got way too many used books at the moment.”
Take a few steps inside BookTree and you’ll see what he means: All around the store are neat stacks of used books sitting in front of the shelves — a pandemic-era addition to BookTree’s layout. Jarmick explains that many local thrift stores are so overwhelmed right now that they’ve stopped taking book donations, and some paper recycling businesses won’t accept books because of the glue on the spine, “so the books are going straight to the trash, and that’s very disappointing.”
BookTree has become a refuge for those orphaned books, to help them weather this crimp in the used-book supply chain. Jarmick has donated thousands of books to senior centers, Boys & Girls Clubs, and prisons since the summer. But customers keep bringing books in, because they don’t have the heart to throw them out. Hence, the stacks of books now adorning BookTree.
Jarmick figures that “if I wind up having giant piles of books here, at least I’m doing some good. And, surprisingly, people have liked the piles so far. There’s way too many right now, but I think there will always be a few piles of books around from here on out.”
BookTree has been in business for almost exactly five years. The shop opened as a kind of a successor to Kirkland’s Parkplace Books, which was for nearly three decades the flagship independent bookstore of the Eastside. Jarmick, an author who had regularly participated in readings at the shop, partnered with Parkplace co-owner Mary Harris to open BookTree in November 2016. Harris retired less than a year later, leaving Jarmick as the proprietor and sole employee of BookTree, where he’s been ever since.
BookTree offers an enticing blend of the latest bestsellers everyone’s talking about and a solid and surprising collection of used books not available anywhere else. Browsers searching for the latest Jonathan Franzen novel can find copies up at the front desk, but browsers with a little bit of patience for spelunking in the stacks can discover an armload of Rex Stout’s delightful Nero Wolfe paperback mysteries available for a couple of bucks a pop.
In the back, BookTree’s spacious children’s section almost feels like a completely different shop. Jarmick says it was designed to feel “separate from the rest of the store,” so that kids could play with Legos and nestle in beanbag chairs with some books while their parents browse to their hearts’ content in the next room.
The kids section is lively and only stocked with the finest quality titles — BookTree carries everything by beloved “Captain Underpants” author Dav Pilkey, for instance, but Jarmick chooses to not carry the dozens of subpar Pilkey rip-offs that have sprung up over the last few years. “They’re not as good, so I’m not going to put them on the shelf,” Jarmick says. “But if you really want them, I’m happy to order them for you.”
Jarmick credits a small group of local teachers and school librarians for helping him keep the stock in the kids room fresh. “I keep track of which books are being nominated for the Washington State Book Award, and all that,” Jarmick says, “but then these teachers are also whispering in my ear, giving me their opinions of which books are the standouts with their kids.”
That “synchronicity between the community and the bookstore” is what Jarmick credits as the key to BookTree’s success. “It’s been a combination of me imposing my quirky tastes on them, and them imposing their interests on me. It’s the only reason I’m still open. And I can almost pay all the bills almost on time and not go into debt, so I’m feeling pretty accomplished so far,” he jokes.
Jarmick is an enthusiastic reader, and he’s eager to share his experiences and opinions with interested customers. To someone buying a copy of Richard Powers‘ magisterial novel “The Overstory” he advises that “you want to sit down somewhere and really try to take in the first 80 or 90 pages of this one in one sitting” to fully appreciate the book’s scope and not be frustrated by its elaborate web of narrative threads. It’s great reading advice, and exactly the kind of personalized service that online book retailers — including the one Jarmick only refers to as “the Evil Empire” — could never offer.
Kirkland mystery author Robert Dugoni recently tweeted his endorsement of BookTree, specifically citing Jarmick’s book recommendations as a reason why the store is one of his favorites. Jarmick says Dugoni “has been very good to the store” over the years, even inviting BookTree along for readings that take place in Seattle-area locations featured in his books.
In return, Jarmick raves about Dugoni’s mysteries, which he says are “very character-based. And he doesn’t feel that he has to outdo himself with every book, so if the house catches on fire in the first book, then the block does not have to blow up in the second one and the city does not have to be under nuclear attack in the third.”
A poet at heart, Jarmick has always loved books. But the past five years have seen him grow into the role of a bookseller serving his community. “I love it,” he says. “I love being surrounded by books and talking too much about books and figuring out who is a real book nerd.” As he’s grown to meet Kirkland’s book clubs and readers, Jarmick has learned that “some of them even out-book-nerd me, which is wonderful.”
What are BookTree customers reading?
As Kirkland’s interest in anti-racist books picked up last summer, Jarmick guided a number of readers toward Isabel Wilkerson’s brilliant investigation of America’s complex race and class systems, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” “I thought really highly of it myself and I thought it would be a really good book club book,” Jarmick explains. Many of the local book clubs that buy from BookTree listened to his advice, making “Caste” a Kirkland hit.
One writer that Jarmick says he “discovered along with everybody else, but probably a little sooner than some people,” was the novelist Amor Towles, whose second book, “A Gentleman in Moscow,” is “a big, easy kind of hand-sell. It’s just such a well-written book that I think you’ll have a lot of fun reading it.” Jarmick knows that not every book can be successful with every reader, but he guesses that “A Gentleman in Moscow” has somewhere over “a 90% success rate” with anyone who opens it.
“Currently, I am highly recommending ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’ by Anthony Doerr,” the bestselling author of “All the Light We Cannot See.” Jarmick says that based on the description he would assume the novel ”is not my type of book because it’s such an oddball — is it fantasy? Is it science fiction? But the writing is so good, who cares?” Jarmick says. “I’m not finished with it yet, but it’s probably going to wind up being one of my favorite books.”