Four years ago next month, Dan Ullom and his family opened Brick & Mortar Books, an independent bookstore in Redmond Town Center, with almost zero bookselling experience among them.
“We all had a love of books,” Ullom says over the phone. His mother was a librarian at Sammamish’s Rachel Carson Elementary School, and his father worked as a bookseller “maybe 50 years ago,” Ullom says, “but none of us really knew what we were doing.”
They’d been flirting with the idea of opening a bookstore for a couple of years, and they thought the outdoor mall, which used to be home to a well-loved outpost in the Borders chain, would deliver the foot traffic that a good general interest bookstore needs. Redmond Town Center’s management was eager to bring a bookstore back into the mix — even offering the family some of the bookshelves that Borders had left behind when the chain unceremoniously dissolved in 2011. Ullom and his family spent “close to 100 hours” poring over catalogs to select the books they wanted in stock for opening day … and then the day came.
To put it charitably, Brick & Mortar did not quite look ready for the public on opening day.
For one, the space was too large for the limited number of books they had in stock. “We didn’t get a bank loan when we first opened so the store was sparse,” Ullom admits. “The review I most remember from the early days is something like, ‘They look more like an art installation of a bookstore than a bookstore.’”
If your only experience with Brick & Mortar was a visit on opening weekend four years ago, a return visit today could well knock you off your feet in surprise. The shelves have filled with books, and expanded to fit the space, and they’re lined with numerous passionate recommendations from the shop’s staff of six booksellers. One pillar of the store is adorned with autographs and illustrations from the dozens of authors who have done readings at Brick & Mortar over the years — roughly one reading per week, in non-COVID-19 times, along with a healthy slate of book clubs. It looks, in short, like a really well-stocked, general interest neighborhood bookstore — a shop that any community would be proud to claim.
“We’ve been learning as we go along,” Ullom says. “It’s been a lot of fun to grow, and to see people respond to the growth.”
As one of the world’s leading tech hubs, Redmond might not seem to be the most ideal location for a good old-fashioned print bookstore. Brick & Mortar’s name came from an early conversation Ullom had with a tech worker friend. At first, the friend assumed Ullom and his family were going to open an online book retailing service, but then he blurted out, almost in horror, “You mean, like, a brick-and-mortar shop?” Ullom decided to lean in to it.
The name Brick & Mortar Books had already been registered by YA fantasy novelist Marissa Meyer for a potential bookstore, but Ullom reached out to ask if he could purchase it from her. To his surprise, “she just gave us the name.” Ullom credits her generosity as one of his early motivations. “At that point, I felt like I had a responsibility to make it work.”
Now, workers from Microsoft and other local tech companies flock to Brick & Mortar. One regular customer, a high-level executive at a video game company, told Ullom, “I don’t trust employees who don’t read.” They’ll often use classic science fiction and fantasy novels as shared road maps as they’re working out the plots and themes of new games.
Ullom credits Brick & Mortar’s large and welcoming kids’ section for much of the store’s early success, and since then, they’ve tried to grow to match the interests of the community. “It’s really about getting to know our customers and what they like,” Ullom says.
A bookseller persuaded Ullom to try building a romance section, and now it’s a bestselling section for Brick & Mortar, fueled by a monthly romance book club. Ullom hadn’t given the genre much thought before, but now he’s impressed: “Romance right now is one of the better categories for inclusivity, and it has so many interesting stories to tell.”
Though it took time to adjust to socially distanced bookselling and Zoom events, Brick & Mortar seems primed to come roaring out of the pandemic. Ullom says Brick & Mortar made more money in the 2020 holiday season than it did during the 2019 holidays — a sign that the community is eager for books and bookstores to be a part of the great reopening.
And while shopping malls around the country are endangered by mass retail chain extinctions and diminishing foot traffic, Ullom feels confident about Redmond Town Center’s future. He admits to some worry when the Macy’s closed in 2019, but “it turned out not to matter in terms of sales for us,” and he’s excited by the smaller, more local businesses that are establishing roots in the spaces where chain stores used to be. The family has courted offers to open new branches of Brick & Mortar elsewhere, but Ullom says even if they add locations, Redmond Town Center will be their flagship location. The mall “will be the last stop on light rail, Redmond is growing, and our new owners understand the importance of having a bookstore,” he says.
Ullom and his family are in the early stages of planning a celebration to welcome Brick & Mortar’s community back to the shop. “We are going to have a one-time, festival-like event,” Ullom says, with “signing tables and tents in the mall where fans can interact with authors in a safe way.”
Right now they’re envisioning a grand affair in July or August with 30 to 50 Washington state authors, “most of whom had books come out during the pandemic, so that we can celebrate their accomplishments.” That Brick & Mortar has grown from such modest beginnings into such a vital community hub — even thriving in the middle of a pandemic — seems like an accomplishment worth celebrating, too.
What are Brick & Mortar customers reading?
According to bookselling metrics software Edelweiss, Brick & Mortar was the first local bookstore to sell 100 copies of Samantha Shannon’s massive fantasy epic, “The Priory of the Orange Tree.” Ullom says his staff fell in love with the book and convinced readers to not be daunted by the 900-page tome.
One of Brick & Mortar’s in-store book clubs became enraptured by Yangsze Choo’s “The Night Tiger,” an adventure novel that immerses readers in the mythology of Malaysia. “The book club loved it, and then their friends came in and bought it, too. It’s taken on a life of its own.”
Ullom transformed one of his personal favorites, Icelandic author Ragnar Jónasson’s horror novel, “The Mist,” into a store bestseller, too. “I love brutal books,” Ullom says, and this thriller about a stranger knocking on a family’s door in the middle of an ice storm “just gets worse and worse as it goes along,” in the best, most frightening way possible.
Even if they’re on national bestseller lists, authors with local connections sell uniquely well at Brick & Mortar. Ben Guterson’s “Winterhouse” fantasy series for young readers, Ben Clanton’s “Narwhal and Jelly” picture books, and Kazu Kibuishi’s “Amulet” series of YA graphic novels all top Brick & Mortar’s list of all-time bestsellers. “I think it helps that they have all done multiple events in the store,” Ullom says. “They are all also incredibly kind and thoughtful people — and it shows in their work.”