Lit Life

These days, opening an independent bookstore is an act of optimism; a statement of belief in the power of books and reading.

Though independent bookstores are having something of a resurgence — nationwide, the number of such stores has seen healthy growth in recent years — it’s still no easy thing to open and run one. Profit margins are slim, online competitors offer discounts that single stores can’t match, and high Seattle-area rents for storefronts add to the challenges; it’s a business, perhaps, for dreamers.

Two such dreamers are Desirae Wilkerson and Eric Judy, the married couple behind West Seattle’s new bookstore, Paper Boat Booksellers. She’s an interior designer and he’s the former bass guitarist for the indie rock band Modest Mouse; the two have three children. When Judy left the band in 2011 after 20 years, the couple talked about what their next step might be.

One idea kept coming up. “Even when I was in the band,” said Judy, in the store this month, “I always wanted to own a bookstore.”

“We both grew up always reading,” said Wilkerson. Opening a family business and community gathering space, in their own West Seattle neighborhood, felt right.

It took a few years, though, to make the dream happen. Wilkerson and Judy attended a Florida workshop, by Paz & Associates, about owning and managing an independent bookstore. (Other local bookstores, including Brick & Mortar Books in Redmond, trace their roots to that same workshop.) They talked to local bookstore owners about the business, and dabbled in pop-up bookselling. And suddenly, events converged: The Barnes & Noble in West Seattle closed in January, leaving the neighborhood without a bookstore specializing in new books.

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“We got a little bit frantic,” said Wilkerson. “We thought, oh my gosh, someone else is going to do it — we have to do it.”

They’d hoped to find space in the Junction shopping district, but cost there was prohibitive. Then a space opened up in April farther south on California Avenue Southwest; formerly a computer-repair shop, it had ample space for a sales floor plus storage and office space in the back. “It was perfect, and it was affordable,” said Wilkerson. Shelves were ordered, decorative touches were added (including an antique table and wooden pew, which belonged to Judy’s family), and a warmly inviting store began to come together.

Originally, Wilkerson and Judy thought they’d call the shop Moonlight Books. But when it came time to get the business license, another idea occurred to them: Their daughter Iona, who is 8, loves to make origami paper boats, and her parents saw a nice metaphor: a paper boat, calmly floating in the water, finding adventures along the way — just like the feeling of reading a book.

In soft-open mode since early September as the owners finish the store’s final details, Paper Boat Booksellers will have its grand opening Oct. 5. It’s a general-interest bookstore, with about 9,000 titles available on a variety of subjects (though Judy’s interest in science fiction/fantasy makes that section particularly strong). A cozy children’s corner features a tiny table with animal-shape chairs, and shelves near the front offer rows of staff picks. Wilkerson was delighted that their first off-the-street sale was of Min Jin Lee’s “Pachinko” — one of her own selections.

They plan to offer regular author readings (those bookshelves are movable, leaving space for rows of chairs), a family reading hour on Saturdays, a toddler-friendly reading time on Wednesdays and other special events.

And they’re excited to become part of a community of booksellers. Judy cited Dan Ullom, co-owner of Brick & Mortar Books (another family-owned indie, opened in 2017), as a huge help; their stores use the same point-of-sale system for inventory, which Ullom helped explain to the new owners.

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“It feels good to help pay back a little,” said Ullom in an email, adding that he’s eager to visit Paper Boat. “We had so many stores help us on our journey.”

The only other bookstore in West Seattle, Pegasus Book Exchange (also a family business; open since 1983 and primarily selling used books), also wishes the new store well. Jimmy Goodman, a manager at Pegasus, said, “We’ve always been happy to have another bookstore or two around, then people can get the books they need, they’re not going online, they’re staying local.” Goodman noted that, “Paper Boat has graciously already let people know that when they’re done with their books, they can bring them down here,” keeping the cycle going — and keeping books in the neighborhood.

Visiting Paper Boat during its soft open, with Iona scooting around the store on her Heelys and eager customers browsing the selection, felt like entering a happy place. Wilkerson and Judy looked tired (they’d been up past midnight unpacking books) but contented. “It’s just wonderful to be able to do this,” Wilkerson said.

Here’s to the dreamers.

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Paper Boat Booksellers, now open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays; grand opening festivities Saturday, Oct. 5; 6040 California Ave. S.W., Ste. A, Seattle; 206-743-8283, paperboatbooksellers.com