Lit Life

If you’ve been a regular at Ravenna Third Place Books in recent years, or maybe M Coy Books or Bailey/Coy Books before that, you definitely knew Michael Coy. He was the pleasant gentleman up front, in the checked shirt and elegant retro glasses, always ready to help with book suggestions (he had, it seemed, read everything) or chat about the latest movies. Every bookstore has its own mood and its own magic; Coy, manager of the Ravenna store since 2009, was a big part of that.

But I’m using the past tense here, for reasons happy for Coy and sad for the rest of us: After 48 years in the book business, most of them in Seattle, he has decided to retire. After the COVID-19 pandemic closed bookstores for several months, the 71-year-old Coy chose to call it a career — one that saw him playing a formative role in three beloved Seattle bookstores.  

“It just seemed time,” said Coy of his decision, during a chat on the sunny patio outside Ravenna Third Place in late June. Until this spring, he said, he’d thought of maybe working until fall or next year — “it was still fun!” But in the aftermath of pandemic closures, Coy realized that working with the public was a risk he probably shouldn’t take any more, for himself or for his husband, Michael Brasky.

“He’s just had a huge influence on the book community,” said Robert Sindelar, managing partner of Third Place Books. Coy, he said, is remarkably good at making people feel welcome — “he’s a calming presence” — and instilling trust. Customers love to hear his recommendations; employees love working with him. Sindelar said the Ravenna store has remarkably high staff retention “and I have to give Michael 100% credit for that. He has very loyal employees, and that’s the culture he creates.”

Retail has always been in Coy’s blood: His family owned the general store in the small Minnesota town where Coy grew up (“it was like Lake Wobegon”). After studying English at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, he made his way to the Bay Area in California in the early 1970s, at loose ends. “I thought working at a bookstore sounded like it would be fun,” he remembered, “until I figured out what I wanted to do with my life.” He got a part-time job at B. Dalton Booksellers in San Jose, and fell in love with the book business. “I felt like I had found my people.”

After a stint in Oregon, running the B. Dalton in downtown Portland, Coy moved to Seattle with Brasky in 1981 to work for Pacific Pipeline, a regional book wholesaler. Inspired by the bustle of Broadway on Capitol Hill — “such an incredible amount of gay culture, really flourishing” — he and Barbara Bailey opened Bailey/Coy Books in 1982, first in a small space, then expanding to a larger one two years later.

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“They both took off from the get-go,” Coy remembered. It was, he said, a great time to be in retail, before the internet and big-box stores. And then, AIDS came. “It just decimated the energy, the economic vitality,” he said. He needed a change, so he left Bailey/Coy to open a new store downtown with Brasky, M Coy Books, in 1990.

For 18 years, M Coy Books was a welcome, book-lined haven on Pine Street in the downtown core. If you dropped by, you likely found Coy up front selling books and Brasky manning the espresso bar in the back. It was, Coy said, mostly just the two of them working there, and “Michael and I had a really good time.” Though the store survived the arrival downtown of Amazon (its original headquarters were just around the corner), Barnes & Noble and Borders, it couldn’t survive the loss of its original landlord: Once the building was sold in 2008, new landlords doubled the rent, and the Michaels reluctantly decided it was time to close.

Coy, then 60, wondered what would be next — doing “a lot of walking” while trying to figure out a plan. But, as with all great books, another chapter was about to begin. Sindelar, who’d heard about M Coy’s closure and knew Coy from serving with him on the Washington State Book Awards committee, approached to ask if Coy might be willing to work at the Ravenna store, which was in need of a new direction.

“I thought I needed to find somebody to help me with my résumé,” said Coy, laughing. “Just when I was talking to friends for leads on that, Robert called, so I didn’t have to do the résumé!”

For 11 years, he’s left his mark on the Ravenna Third Place store, presiding over a change in strategy (previously selling almost entirely used books, it’s now approximately half new/half used), developing a staff, putting countless good books into readers’ hands.

And he’s watched what he describes as a sea change in independent bookselling in the Amazon era. “If there’s any one segment of the retail industry that heard the ‘buy local’ message, it was the bookstore customer,” he said. A few years ago, staff would frequently see people taking pictures of books on their phones so as to purchase them online later; now, that’s rare. “People got the message that if you just walk through the store and say, ‘Isn’t this cute, I love having a bookstore here,’ and walk out, it doesn’t work. You have to buy your book also.”

In retirement, Coy plans to — what else? — read. At the Capitol Hill apartment where he and Brasky have lived since they moved here (originally a rental, they bought it decades ago), he’s looking forward to time spent in a comfortable chair, diving into “mostly fat books.” No longer compelled to keep up with the very latest, he’s hoping to sink into Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns,” James McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era,” and, finally, “War and Peace.” And he’s eager to do some rereading, too, of classics that dazzled him long ago: Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” George Eliot’s “Middlemarch.”

Looking back at 48 years, Coy said he never once wondered whether he’d made the right decision by spending his career in the not-very-lucrative book world. “I’ve always loved it,” he said — the books, the colleagues, the customers. “I’ve been a lucky man.”