Neighborhood Reads

Independent booksellers put a trusted human filter between you and the overwhelming flood of books that are published every week. After just a brief conversation, they can help you find the perfect novel to suit your mood, track down the perfect gift for that hard-to-buy-for relative, and introduce you to a writer who will literally change the way you understand the world.

But 2020 has been an impossibly difficult year for bookstores precisely because that human connection has been difficult to forge. Coronavirus has kept us in our homes and away from the indoor spaces that invite us to spend long stretches of time browsing. This all amounts to one true statement: If you want Seattle’s world-class community of independent bookstores to still be as vital as it is now on the other end of the pandemic, you’d better give them your business this Christmas season.

To help you support your local bookstore while remaining COVID-safe, I asked five bookstores that have been featured in the Neighborhood Reads column over the last year to recommend a favorite book that they’re guaranteed to have in stock this holiday season. When all combined into one impressive stack — nearly 8 pounds of book, all told — they make up a Seattle Independent Bookstore Gift Basket, the perfect gift for every local bibliophile on your holiday shopping lists. These books are guaranteed to provoke and inspire and comfort — and buying them from Seattle-area independent bookstores helps to ensure that you’ll experience many years of inspiration, provocation and comfort to come.

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James Crossley, the manager at the small-but-mighty Madison Books, admits that it was hard to focus on books over the fall.

“Honestly, I was having the worst time with reading fiction,” he laughs. But then, following the avid recommendation of Seattle literary maven Nancy Pearl, he picked up Spokane author Jess Walter’s latest novel, “The Cold Millions,” and “that did it,” Crossley says — the book reignited his passion for reading novels.

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“The Cold Millions” by Jess Walter (Harper)
“The Cold Millions” by Jess Walter (Harper)

Walter, Crossley notes, is a writer with broad range — he’s “written black comedy, and crime novels, and historical romance. ‘The Cold Millions’ sort of hits all three. I would put this near the top of Walter’s work.” Set in Washington state in 1909, “Millions” follows two brothers as they ride the rails and eventually become entwined with Spokane’s turbulent labor scene. Told with Walter’s trademark dry wit and expansive heart, Crossley says “Millions” feels as “timely” as today’s paper, but it contains none of the high-stress spectacle that dominates your daily Twitter feed.

Jenny Cole, the co-owner of Burien’s vibrant Page 2 Books, is a big fan of Washington state author Kate McDermott’s new cookbook, “Pie Camp: The Skills You Need to Make Any Pie You Want.” Cole says McDermott’s last book, “The Art of the Pie” was “a huge hit, and we still sell a lot of copies of that.” 

McDermott is a beloved baking teacher — her pie-making classes, even the virtual editions happening during the pandemic, always sell out quickly — and Cole says this book gives readers “the skills you need to make any pie you want” — both sweet and savory, “so you can have pie for dinner and then pie for dessert.”

For the comfort baker in your life, this is the must-have cookbook of the season. Cole says she’s had the pleasure of tasting McDermott’s pear pie. “I’m not a huge apple pie fan, and I’d never even heard of a pear pie before, but it was really beyond good,” she says wistfully.

As both the manager at Ada’s Technical Books and the buyer in charge of selecting all the titles sold at Ada’s and the shop’s new Fuel Coffee sister locations, Rain Sepulveda evaluates and assesses books all day. But every few months or so, one book really sticks: “The book that I’m excited about this holiday season is ‘The 99% Invisible City’ by Roman Mars, who hosts the ‘99% Invisible’ podcast,” they tell me. Sepulveda uses they/them pronouns.

“The 99% Invisible City” by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
“The 99% Invisible City” by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
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The book takes the podcast’s mission statement of exploring “the invisible design of everyday objects” and applies it to cities: “what goes into urban planning, and who created grid blocks and street signs and traffic lights, and all that kind of fun stuff that we don’t think about.” 

Sepulveda, a lifelong Seattle resident who was born on Capitol Hill, says the book has changed the way they see the city on their walks. “It’s made me aware of just how much certain parts of the cities are allowed to build, how zoning is continuing to impact our city, and the way formerly residential neighborhoods are growing, and trying to grow,” they say.

Madison Duckworth has worked at Poulsbo’s delightful Liberty Bay Books for over a decade, so it’s no surprise that she’s drawn to Matt Haig’s literary fantasy novel “The Midnight Library.” In it, a woman finds herself in an infinite library that exists in the realm between life and death, and every book in the library contains the story of how her life would have gone if she’d made a different choice.

Duckworth believes “The Midnight Library” resonates especially well with readers in 2020, because its message that “you have the power to control your own destiny appeals to people who don’t feel like they have any control over their own lives” during the pandemic.

No proper survey of Seattle-area independent bookstores would be complete without Wallingford’s Open Books — one of the select few poetry-only bookstores in the world. One of the latest books that’s captured owner Billie Swift’s attention is “Entering Sappho,” a themed collection written by former Seattleite Sarah Dowling that explores “colonialism and the conventions of naming and who gets to name.”

“Entering Sappho” juxtaposes the legacy of the classical poet Sappho with the history of the abandoned town on the Pacific Coast Highway that bears her name. Swift saw Dowling read at the Margin Shift poetry series years ago and was immediately taken by her “rhythmic” style of “taking phrases and then revisiting them and twisting them in a very, very playful way. She really sits inside of the beginnings and ends of her words,” Swift recalls. She thinks these dark Northwest winters are the perfect time to dig into a book that peels apart the convenient stories that accumulate around our history.

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When grouped together as a gift, these five books appear to have nothing in common. No online retailer’s algorithm would ever place them side by side as customer recommendations. The only thing that connects them is that five of the Seattle area’s most passionate bookish people have fallen deeply in love with them, and desperately want other people to do the same.

There are hundreds of independent booksellers in the Seattle area who are waiting to share the books they treasure. This holiday season, you couldn’t find a better gift for a Seattle-area book lover than a bundle of those treasures, wrapped up in a bow. Not only does it guarantee hours of enjoyment, education and escapism — it also helps ensure that Seattle’s vibrant independent bookstore scene will survive the darkest winter it’s ever had to face.

Neighborhood reads

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