Take a 20-minute stroll west from the heart of downtown Burien on Southwest 152nd Street and you’ll find yourself in a quiet residential neighborhood called Seahurst. Compared with the bustle of Burien, Seahurst practically feels like a small town, with its stunning Puget Sound views and beautiful forest trails. A few businesses line the main drag — a small coffee shop called The Bean, a consignment shop called Lollipops, and a cute little post office that wouldn’t be out of place anywhere in rural America.
The U.S. Postal Service only takes up three-quarters of the post office building, though; the leftmost 240 square feet of the storefront belongs to a small-but-mighty independent bookstore called Three Trees Books. Founded by Ingrid and Tim Miller two years ago, Three Trees punches far above its weight. It’s a clean, bright store that’s packed to the rafters with books but which somehow doesn’t feel overstuffed.
“Owning a bookstore was a dream project for me, one of those things I always wanted to do,” Ingrid Miller explains. “I had a career in online advertising for 25 years, but I decided I wasn’t going to wait anymore.”
The Millers live not very far from the post office, and when they saw that the space next door was available, they thought it would be perfect for a neighborhood bookstore. The minuscule floor plan did force them to make some adjustments to the business model of their dreams, though — they had to learn how to embrace the smallness. Tim Miller found a news story about “a bookstore in Tokyo that only features one book a month. They have a big party where they announce the book, and that’s the only book they carry that month.”
Three Trees would obviously carry way more than one title, but the Millers knew they would have to make every single book on the shelves count. “I tried to imagine an airport bookstore, but with really good books,” Ingrid Miller says with a laugh.
The Millers used their own personal library for inspiration, consulted with well-read friends and perused the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association bestseller lists to fill the shop with around 4,200 titles. Some of the omissions they had to make still haunt them: “I don’t think we even carry ‘Jane Eyre,’ my favorite book,” Miller says. But thanks to modern distribution systems, basically any other title in the world their customers desire is just a day or two away.
Filling the shelves of a bookstore, it turns out, is a deeply personal act. “About five years ago, I quit drinking and I quit dieting, and those were really transformative things in my life,” Miller says. In Three Trees, the section that in most bookshops is labeled “Self-Help” is instead called “QUIT STUFF,” and it’s full of books about quitting drinking, combating diet culture, and intuitive eating.
“Very recently, a woman came in and thanked me for not carrying diet books,” she says. “It just made me feel so good, and it reminded me how important curation can be — not just for the sheer fun of introducing people to books that you love, but also you can potentially shift people’s thinking. That’s very powerful.”
Two years after opening, Miller says, “the bookstore is still tiny and it is still highly curated, but it’s more curated by the community than by us.” The Millers pay close attention to the books their customers are reading, and they know that just a little word-of-mouth can make any book a local bestseller. “We have a couple of influencer customers who, the minute they pick up a book, I know I should order a lot of copies,” she says.
Three Trees is already becoming an essential part of the Seahurst community — a place where civic conversations happen. Immediately following the murder of George Floyd, a customer spent $1,000 on anti-racism books to place in the free lending library cart that the Millers maintain on Three Trees’ front porch for the neighborhood to share. The Millers hope to duplicate the success of that program by placing LGBTQ+ — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning, with the + denoting everything along the gender and sexuality spectrum — young adult titles in the lending library during Pride Month in June. (Tim Miller doesn’t think that offering a free lending library hurts his store’s sales at all: “People are mostly just so blown away by it that they come in and buy books,” he says.)
For the coming year, Three Trees is planning on expanding its reach into the community. The Millers would like to find a space nearby where they could host readings that are too big for the bookshop. Encouraged by strong sales during the pandemic, they hope to eventually bring a bookseller or two on staff and expand the store’s hours.
It’s a time of big possibilities for Three Trees Books, but the small storefront is still the center of it all. While Ingrid Miller admits that navigating the narrow aisles can be “especially challenging with an infant, a backpack or, in my case, a big butt,” that challenge has become a Three Trees rite of passage. Once you accidentally knock a book off a shelf and onto the floor, you’re part of the family.
What are Three Trees Books customers reading?
Three Trees hosts three book clubs covering a wide range of topics. One recent success from the store’s flagship Tiny Book Club is “An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good,” a humorous collection of short stories by Swedish author Helene Tursten about an 88-year-old woman named Maud who becomes a serial killer. The author’s light approach to Maud’s surprising killing spree — she only targets rude young people who underestimate their elders — invited a brisk discussion about topics that otherwise would feel too heavy for a book club discussion.
A customer recommended Gabrielle Zevin’s novel “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” to the Millers, and the novel about a bookstore owner who finds a new way to appreciate life seemed to speak directly to them. It’s the kind of book that can reinvigorate your love of reading: Over the course of the novel, the protagonist discusses dozens of other books, many of which immediately found themselves rushed to the front of the Millers’ to-read pile.
“I have a bit of a personal motivation” for promoting one of Three Trees Books’ perennial bestsellers, co-owner Tim Miller admits. His uncle, Portland nature writer Brian Doyle, passed away in 2019, but not without leaving an impressive body of work behind. Doyle “published an awful lot in a couple of years,” he says. The Millers recommend his novel “Mink River,” about the eccentric residents of a fictional Northwestern town, and his posthumous nonfiction collection, “One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder,” to first-time readers, but they make sure to have multiple copies of all his books on hand. Three Trees has become a destination for fans of Doyle’s funny, compassionate work, with one couple recently making a pilgrimage directly to the store after their plane landed in Seattle. “When a customer comes in glowing after reading his work, it’s a hell of a feeling,” Tim Miller says.