About a month after the coronavirus pandemic started to spread in Washington state, in the middle of that first, dark, wintry lockdown period, pretty much every business in Pioneer Square boarded up its windows.
Nobody knew exactly how long the lockdown would last, or how people would react to the empty streets. Murals started popping up on the barricaded windows and doors, adding some needed color to the largely abandoned neighborhood.
One gorgeous mural, in particular, stood out: Painted with soothing baby blue and a few shocking jolts of gold by Amanda Joyce Bishop, the boarded-up front of Arundel Books on First Avenue displayed a pair of hands, a crystal ball, some clouds and an all-seeing eye up top, staring down at a book with fluttering pages. Spelled out in huge letters spanning the whole mural, a quote by bestselling author Neil Gaiman: “A book is a dream you hold in your hands.”
It felt, to Arundel Books owner Phil Bevis, like the right statement for the time: hopeful, literary, earnest. The mural became a bit of an international sensation, shared on Twitter and Reddit an uncountable number of times.
When Arundel reopened under COVID-19 safety protocols, Bevis kept the mural intact and hung it in the store. He reached out to Gaiman’s representatives to ask permission to sell prints of the mural as a limited edition broadside. “They were so generous,” Bevis recalls. “When they said yes, it was on the single worst day of the pandemic, and it put a little air under our wings.” Arundel has since shipped copies of the print around the world.
Born in Pullman, Bevis has been selling and publishing books since the mid-1980s. He opened his own new and used bookstore, Arundel Books, in Los Angeles in 1987, and in 1995 he opened a second location in Seattle. After more than a decade of splitting his time between L.A. and Seattle, Bevis moved back in 2010 and made Arundel a Seattle exclusive.
Arundel carries about 35,000 titles, a lively blend of antiquarian, used and brand-new books. Bevis explains that “the oldest book we have in stock right now is from the 1520s, and the newest is a book that came out yesterday.” The staff of eight booksellers follow their interests, from science to science fiction to literature in translation and a growing children’s section.
Arundel also sells prints by local artists, and the shop serves as a showroom for Chatwin Books, the publisher that Bevis co-owns. Chatwin publishes an electric array of authors, from the collected works of former Seattle poet Maged Zaher to a survey of impressionistic Vashon Island-themed paintings by local artist Pam Ingalls and a new anthology documenting some of the mural art displayed on Seattle storefronts during the pandemic.
Arundel lives at the intersection of Bevis’ many interests — visual art, the entire life span of a book, and high-quality letterpress printing. “If I was just printing and publishing, I wouldn’t be happy,” Bevis says. “And if I was just running a bookstore, that wouldn’t work either. I didn’t expect to be having this much fun at this point in my career.”
Like some sort of literary glacier, Arundel has been moving slowly down First Avenue for its entire existence. It debuted across from the Seattle Art Museum, but moved a few blocks south when its building was torn down to make way for the Harbor Steps. Its next location had the best balcony in all of Seattle, but a new spot in Pioneer Square’s Grand Central Building was too good to refuse.
This past February, in the middle of a snowstorm, Arundel moved again, to a gorgeous, bright space at 322 First Ave. S. At 2,000 square feet, the new digs look pretty much the same as when they were built in 1900. A series of friezes lining the vaulted ceilings depict the immigration story of the Schmidt family, the space’s first tenants and the creators of Olympia Brewing Company. Taking in the grand view from the front of the store, Bevis looks like a teenager in love. “Our space in the Grand Central was beautiful, but there’s something about this space that makes it really a joy to work in. It’s got a real lightness of spirit.”
From launch parties for new Chatwin titles and celebrations of milestones in the careers of Seattle artists, Arundel is famous for its wine-fueled bookish celebrations. Bevis can’t wait to host readings in this new space: All the shelves in the center of the store can be moved aside, creating a narrow reading space with imposing white columns that resembles a book-lined church.
Pioneer Square has for decades been Seattle’s literary heart. For the latter half of the 20th century, Seattle’s readers would flock to the neighborhood to find treasures at beloved institutions like Seattle Mystery Bookshop, David Ishii, Bookseller, and Bowie & Weatherford, Booksellers. Arundel’s new location feels like a continuation of that tradition. Located at the corner of First and South Jackson Street, it’s on the other end of the block from Elliott Bay Book Company’s original location. Bevis swears Arundel’s southward migration is complete.
“This is it. We’re done,” he says. “This is the natural home for this store.”
What books are Arundel customers reading?
“Our bestseller over the past several years, just across the board, has been ‘Feeding Seven Generations,’” Bevis explains. Subtitled “A Salish Cookbook,” Elise Krohn and Valerie Segrest’s collection of Indigenous recipes using local ingredients has taught readers how to cook seasonally and geographically appropriate dishes that have been made in the Pacific Northwest for hundreds of years.
Arundel’s second-bestselling author over the past three years has made a remarkable resurgence on the charts, considering that he’s been dead for nearly two millennia. Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” has proven popular with browsers, “which is just a delightful surprise,” Bevis says.
“Because Pioneer Square has become a home for the knowledge economy, our science and science fiction sections have grown,” Bevis explains. The shop sells a lot of titles by Gaiman — no surprise, given the now-world-famous mural featuring the Gaiman quote — but no author has risen more in popularity among Arundel’s clientele than N.K. Jemisin. “We can barely keep her in stock,” he says.
Arundel has always attracted customers with an eye for visual art. And one of the most popular artists in the shop is the illustrator Shaun Tan. “People are enthralled with his work,” Bevis says. “He does books for adults that bring out the child in all of us, even when they’re fairly dark.” Bevis is especially intrigued by Tan’s mastery of emptiness: “He’s not afraid to leave space in an image for somebody to step into.”
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