“Welcome back, Magnolia!” reads the sign at the Magnolia Farmers Market, written out in cheerful purple and yellow chalk. Sunny summer Saturdays are at a premium in Seattle, of course, but this one feels extra special — a little more joyous. It’s the first Saturday after the Fourth of July weekend, and it really feels like the first day of post-pandemic life. In seemingly every square inch of Magnolia Village, cheerful maskless people are eating, shopping for produce and talking with their neighbors.
The local businesses lining West McGraw Street are making the most of the extra foot traffic that the farmers market has delivered. Coffee shops have lines out the door, restaurants offer lunch specials to entice hungry shoppers and families are packing into Magnolia’s Bookstore for the first time in ages.
Opened by Molly Cook in 1991, Magnolia’s Bookstore has remained in the same Magnolia Village location for three decades. Georgiana Blomberg, who lived two blocks away and had just earned her degree in library science from the University of Washington, started working at Magnolia’s in 1992, and bought the shop from Cook on July 1, 2001.
Unlike most longtime bookstore owners, Blomberg doesn’t have many tales of woe. During those first few years of her ownership, she says, “Everything was just skating along and I was just in awe of how wonderful everything was.” She loved her employees — “People who want to work in bookstores are generally great people,” she says — and business was remarkably steady.
Blomberg cites only two real bumps in the road during her 20 years as owner of Magnolia’s Bookstore: The Great Recession of 2008 triggered an alarming slump in sales, and when Amazon began heavily promoting e-book readers around 2010, customers began drifting away. After those two rough patches, though, customers returned to Magnolia’s Bookstore. The shop, with its team of four booksellers and several occasional staffers who pop in to cover vacations and holidays, has maintained remarkably strong sales ever since.
Almost all of Magnolia’s success can be attributed to its neighbors. Blomberg says Magnolia is a highly literate and “isolated community where people just want to support their local businesses so they can still have a little village center.” Customers kept the store thriving during the pandemic by going out of their way to buy gift certificates and books.
Magnolia, Blomberg says, “is kind of unusual in that people tend to stay here. They grew up here and then they might go away to college. But then they come back — I think more so than any other neighborhood that I’ve ever seen.” To those young people settling into the neighborhood where they grew up, Magnolia’s Bookstore is more than just a local business — it’s a childhood tradition that they want to pass on to the next generation.
Aside from the steady arrival of new titles every Tuesday, not a whole lot about Magnolia’s Bookstore has changed through the years. Blomberg says that as more families have moved to Magnolia, the children’s section has expanded to take up almost half the shop. The political and current events sections predictably swelled over the last four years, but the shop’s bread and butter is still largely high-quality literary fiction and narrative nonfiction titles.
As customers stream into the bookstore from the farmers market, you can feel a community spirit filling the space. Old friends enthusiastically greet each other and share neighborhood gossip in the travel section. A retiree announces her concern that the nearby Bartell Drugs won’t continue to offer her prescriptions now that Rite Aid has taken over management of the once-local chain. A woman takes her husband’s pastry order so he can keep browsing the science fiction section while she pops into Petit Pierre next door.
Blomberg greets a young couple who are bargaining with their toddlers over which sticker books they are allowed to buy. They introduce her to their new baby girl, who was born during the pandemic and is making her first bookstore outing. This has become a commonplace experience for Blomberg, who estimates that she’s seen at least three generations of customers come through the store — the sulky teenagers who bought edgy Stephen King novels from her in 1992 are now coming into the shop to show off their grandchildren — and her enthusiasm for the new baby is genuine and infectious.
Magnolia’s doesn’t host a lot of readings — indicating the shop’s narrow layout, Blomberg asks, “Where would we host an author?” — but occasionally they’ll help a Magnolia author launch a book into the world. Thriller author Mike Lawson and political commentator and memoirist Ronald Reagan Jr. have both made well-attended appearances at their local bookstore.
That particular day, Magnolia author and Seattle Pacific University writing professor Peter Wayne Moe was scheduled to hold court at a table in front of the store. He was hoping to draw some farmers market patrons into conversation about his gorgeous new book, “Touching This Leviathan,” which braids together historical, literary and religious texts into a book-length meditation on the unknowable nature of whales. Blomberg and her staff helped Moe set up his table, congratulated him on his book, and welcomed him to the shop.
Blomberg admits that over the years, she’s flirted with the idea of dropping the apostrophe from the name of Magnolia’s Bookstore. The eccentric punctuation, which has been in place since Cook founded the store in 1991, sometimes hurts the bookstore’s placement in online searches and complicates business transactions. But that apostrophe is deeply relevant to the shop’s mission. It is decidedly Magnolia’s bookshop — an essential part of the community that supports, and is supported by, the neighbors who love it.
What’s Magnolia reading at Magnolia’s?
Blomberg says last year’s overall store bestseller was a local publication: “Magnolia: Midcentury Memories,” the third in a series of historical anthologies compiled by the Magnolia Historical Society. “In most bookstores last year, the No. 1 book was President Obama’s memoir “[A Promised Land”],” she says. Obama’s book “was No. 2 here, but it was eclipsed by the third volume in the Magnolia history series. So that was pretty weird — but kind of cool,” she said, laughing.
Magnolia authors, unsurprisingly, do very well at Magnolia’s Bookstore. Blomberg says local nature photographer Paul Bannick’s “beautiful bird books,” including “Owl: A Year in the Lives of North American Owls” are perennial bestsellers. Magnolia’s customers and booksellers also have a deep and abiding love of quality fiction, and the shop was an early champion of Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, “The Night Watchman,” long before the book won the Pulitzer Prize.
And when a bookseller falls deeply in love with a book, it’s likely to land on Magnolia’s Bookstore’s bestseller list. “My co-worker Sandi is very persuasive,” Blomberg says. “She just loves talking about books, and she loved this book that just came out in paperback called ‘Dirt,’ by Bill Buford.” The memoir about a New York chef’s attempts to master French cooking has taken off with customers, whose effusive praise then encourages their friends to drop by Magnolia’s Bookstore to pick up a copy.
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