Neighborhood Reads

For almost 40 continuous years, the sunny storefront at 7 Mercer Street has been home to woman-owned bookstores. Titlewave Books — reportedly playwright August Wilson’s favorite Seattle bookshop — graced the address for over two decades before closing in 2004. Jamie Lutton then turned the space into an outpost of her Twice Sold Tales bookstore chain for five years.

In 2009, Debbie Sarow took over the storefront and transformed it into a used bookstore named Mercer Street Books. Sarow, a veteran of Twice Sold Tales and Pioneer Square antiquarian bookseller Wessel & Lieberman, imbued every inch of the shop with her meticulous, thoughtful charm. With its tall, glowing umber bookshelves and whimsical decorations including an antique candlestick telephone, Mercer Street Books resembles nothing so much as the grand antiquarian shops of Paris and London — a touch of European stateliness right next to Seattle Center in the Uptown neighborhood.

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Sarow believed that a good bookstore was like a party, and she shaped Mercer Street Books to fit that philosophy, welcoming neighbors and tourists from nearby Seattle Center alike into the store’s orbit. Her shop amassed a growing, loyal customer base who prized its warmth, its singular beauty, and its scrupulously curated selection of titles.

In 2016, after a cancer diagnosis, Sarow sought out someone who could help run Mercer Street Books. She hired Jessica Hurst, a longtime Seattle bookseller. Hurst, a veteran at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, had worked at Pike Place Market used bookseller Lamplight Books since 2014, and Sarow worked out a deal with Lamplight owner Joe Fridlund in which Hurst would split her time between the two shops.

“Lamplight was an amazing place to work,” Hurst says. “But it’s true that Joe and Debbie’s shops couldn’t have been more different.” For example, “Lamplight’s new arrival area is literally a waist-high pile of books in front of his door,” while customers walking into Mercer Street Books for the first time often refuse to believe the shop, with its “perfect order and perfect curation,” is a used bookstore.

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Sarow’s health improved and she began to plan a trip around the world with her partner. Hurst moved over to Mercer Street Books full-time with the intent of managing the shop while Sarow traveled the globe. But even the greatest organizer in Seattle bookselling couldn’t fully prepare for what happened next.

“Debbie had always said she would go to Paris if she got a terminal diagnosis while suffering from this cancer,” Hurst recalls. “And then she got a call one day when we were both in the shop. She grabbed me by the arm and dragged me up to the office and told me she was going to Paris on Wednesday.”

Hurst recalls the rest of that conversation as a blur: Sarow told her that “she needed me to run the shop, and she wanted to know what I thought about buying it, and she cared about me very much, and goodbye.”

“And then I never saw her again, conscious,” Hurst says.

Sarow flew to Paris, and she passed away in August of 2018. Hurst officially bought Mercer Street Books from Sarow’s partner in 2020.

“Debbie was a great boss. She was very communicative and just a pleasure to be around, while also being very specific. It was like watching an artist work,” Hurst says. “When I took over the bookstore, my desire more than anything was to do service to that and to preserve her vision.”

Those familiar with Sarow say she would be pleased with the work Hurst has done at Mercer Street Books. It’s still the same gorgeous space, with lively sprays of plants framing a pristine selection of quality used books. The library card catalogs at the front of the store are still stocked with small items just waiting for curious customers to discover and buy: stationary, antique tools, and minicomics and postcards illustrated by former Mercer Street bookseller and children’s book author Aaron Bagley.

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Hurst says that a large community of international tourists make a point of visiting Mercer Street Books every time they come to town, and Uptown is fiercely loyal to the shop. “I greet half of the people coming in the door by name,” Hurst says. “We get KEXP DJs, people on break from Dick’s Drive-In, the volunteers from the SIFF Uptown, the players from the Seattle Storm” and world-famous actors visiting during their runs at Seattle Repertory Theater.

But Hurst still meets Seattle residents who’ve never heard of Mercer Street Books. “It’s kind of odd,” she muses. “We’re known around the world, but we aren’t that well-known around the city.”

Still, even though Hurst still adheres to Sarow’s strict no-social-media policy — the store’s website is just as bare-bones today as it was under Sarow’s supervision — word is still spreading. Hurst says July was Mercer Street Books’ second-busiest month ever in terms of sales.

The party that Sarow started still unfolds every day, and Hurst and her two employees are devoted to buying and stocking the best used books to keep the conversation going. “I have customers that would love each other’s company that I don’t know how to introduce,” Hurst says. “One of them always sells me the books that the other one buys. It’s this network of people that don’t know each other at all.“

Ultimately, she says, “this is what a used bookstore is: A silent community.”

Illustration by Jenny Kwon

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What are Mercer Street Books customers reading?

Jessica Hurst, the owner of Mercer Street Books, says Uptown’s community changed during the pandemic. “The neighborhood got younger and it got more diverse,” she says. So of course the store’s stock changed along with its customer base.

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The children’s section at Mercer Street Books — already excellent before the pandemic — became even more vibrant. “And we see a lot of current fiction for every demographic you can possibly imagine,” Hurst says — particularly “queer romances and great romances for Black folks.”

Given that the shop is just a few blocks from some of the biggest arts organizations in the city, Mercer Street Books has developed multiple excellent arts sections. “Having SIFF Cinema so close, we have a spectacular film section. Being so close to the arena, we have a really strong music section. There are multiple theaters within Seattle Center and we have a very good section for plays and theater biographies,” Hurst says.

And though it prides itself on its used book selection, Mercer Street Books always carries exactly one new title in stock. In 2019, Mercer Street bookseller Gina Siciliano published “I Know What I Am,” her comic-book biography of Italian baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, with Seattle comics publisher Fantagraphics. The gorgeously illustrated comic recontextualizes the life and work of Gentileschi, who struggled for acceptance as a trailblazing female artist in 17th century Rome. Copies of the book are always available at the front of the store. 

“Two years later it’s in its third edition and still flying off the shelf,” Hurst says.

Mercer Street Books

Noon-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays; 7 Mercer St., Seattle; 206-282-7687; mercerstreetusedbooks.com

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