Neighborhood Reads

In the whole of King County, there’s nothing quite like a summer Saturday in downtown Vashon. Islanders restock their pantries and catch up on local gossip at the weekly farmers market while tourists fresh off the ferry stock up on snacks and grilling supplies at the grocery store before heading to their rental cabins. Though it’s just a 20-minute boat ride from bustling West Seattle, the leisurely small-town pace of Vashon feels a world away from downtown Seattle.

A couple of blocks down the street from the farmers market, just past a four-way stop that strains under the weight of the week’s heaviest traffic flow, both locals and vacationers alike pack into Vashon Bookshop. At the counter, an overwhelmed regular asks for help finding graphic novels that her grandchildren might like. In the children’s section, a family is stocking up on activity books to keep the kids occupied on lazy afternoons.

When you think of an island bookshop, your mind probably summons the kind of place that has more scented candles and kitschy fridge magnets in stock than books — a coral-colored tourist trap slinging the latest paperback cheese. But since its founding in 2001, Vashon Bookshop has continually punched above its weight.

It’s not just a place for tourists to grab the latest thriller or romance novel — it’s a year-round literary hub for a community that loves reading. If you were to scoop up Vashon Bookshop and set it down in any mainland Seattle neighborhood, it would be a welcome addition to the community — a bookstore with a strong personality, a deep mix of bestsellers and hidden gems, and a four-woman staff with over 50 years of bookselling experience among them.

“Until about four years ago, we were definitely much busier in the summer, and those winter months after Christmas were really lean,” admits Vashon Bookshop owner Nancy Katica. But life on the island has changed, with more year-round residents embracing remote work and staying closer to home. Now, “it’s busy all year long for us, which is a blessing.”

Illustration by Jenny Kwon

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Katica has always worked retail, but when she started at Vashon Bookshop in 2004, she realized that she was a natural-born bookseller. “It’s a nicer community than some other retail,“ she laughs. “People are always just so happy to get books, and they want to discuss it with you after they’ve read it. You build a rapport with your customers.”

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Katica became a partner in the business in 2007 and took sole ownership in 2013. The store has been slowly expanding for its entire existence, most recently adding a huge mystery and science fiction section in the back of the shop.

The atmosphere in Vashon Bookshop is cheerful and quirky without being overbearing. Throughout the shop, you’ll find handmade chalk signs and delightful flourishes of personality like a skeleton lounging on top of the mystery section and a wall behind the science fiction section covered in aluminum foil, which lends the shelves the campy air of a 1950s sci-fi film. 

In the front of the store, one whole bookshelf is given over to local interest and Vashon authors, ranging from local history and nature guides to cookbooks like “Our Table of Memories” to local writer Jean Davies Okimoto’s novel about aging and grief, “George Beasley’s Better Angel,” to Vashon native Shady Cosgrove’s memoir about a pilgrimage to Graceland, “She Played Elvis.”

Vashon Bookshop began as a primarily used-book store, but now it offers a mix of new and gently used titles. Just looking at the shelves, it’s almost impossible to distinguish the new books from the used. When they buy back books from customers, Katica says, “condition is really important to us.” She explains that booksellers carefully examine every copy and reject books with damaged or stained pages — as well as any volumes with, Katica pauses to choose the right word, “unique smells.”

That used-book component helps to keep Vashon Bookshop tuned in to the island’s literary ecosystem. Locals bring in paper bags full of recently read purchases to exchange for new books, and Katica credits the shop’s generous store-credit program for building a deeper relationship with customers. “It’s a great way for us to see what the island is interested in and what people are actually reading,” she says.

The events calendar at Vashon Bookshop has been on hold during the pandemic, but Katica is eager to safely reopen the store to events. “Maria Semple [‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette‘ novelist] lives on the island part time and she read at our store to a packed house,” Katica says. “That was of course amazing. And we have a wonderful group of poets on the island, and their readings are always so supportive — they’re very meaningful for me.”

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In the months to come, Vashon Bookshop will also reopen to local book clubs and other writing groups that made a home of the shop before the pandemic. “One group of women used to meet every two weeks, and they’ve all written their own memoirs,” Katica says. “They would come in and meet and talk about their pasts and their writings — it was a wonderful group to listen to.“

Soon enough, the summer rush of tourists will dwindle and in October the farmers market will go into hibernation for the winter. But Vashon Bookshop will still serve the community all year-round, and Katica knows that the community will come out for them. “They want to be able to have the bookstore and the other brick-and-mortar stores on their main street,” she says. “It’s a reading community, and it’s a community of people that want to support each other.”

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What are Vashon Bookshop customers reading?

Vashon Bookshop owner Nancy Katica says Portland author Brian Doyle’s novel “Mink River” and short story collection “One Long River of Song” have proven to be consistent bestsellers at her store. Doyle, who passed away in 2017, wrote fiction, nonfiction and poetry that uniquely evoked “the mixture of hardship and kindness” that makes up the history of the Northwest. “He was just a very special person, and his work is still very resonant on the island,” Katica says.

While Vashon Bookshop’s customers are devoted lovers of fiction, the store sells a lot of nonfiction, too — particularly books devoted to the natural world of the Pacific Northwest. “The island has really been enjoying ‘Homewaters’ by David B. Williams,” Katica explains. “It’s all about the history and culture of Puget Sound,” and it’s been immensely popular with customers since its publication last year.

Vashon resident Karen Cushman has written 10 children’s books, and her Newbery Honor-winning middle-grade novel about a rebellious young woman in 13th-century England, “Catherine, Called Birdy,” has been adapted into a movie by Lena Dunham that’s set to be released this fall. The adaptation is already bringing a new wave of young readers to the perennial bestseller, and “we’re over the moon about it,” Katica says.

Vashon Bookshop

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday-Monday and Wednesday-Saturday; 17612 Vashon Highway S.W., Vashon; 206-463-2616; vashonbookshop.com

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