Neighborhood Reads

Decades before Seattle Center was built, Madison Park was where Seattle came to have fun. Early settlers in Pioneer Square would escape the hustle and bustle of boomtown Seattle for the copious trees and placid beach along Lake Washington. Even as wealthy business owners began to build large houses along the shore of Madison Park, streetcars and a cross-lake ferry terminal ensured the neighborhood remained vibrant for everyone. The community was home to the city’s first ball field, an amusement park, a grand pavilion that hosted concerts and plays, and a menagerie, which was the site of Seattle’s first (and likely only) elephant rampage.

When store manager James Crossley was preparing to open Madison Books in the neighborhood at this time last year, his new neighbors dropped by to express their excitement about the bookshop, and to talk about what Madison Park means to them.

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“There are people here with long roots” in the community, Crossley says. “Many of the people who live here have the same names” as the families that first built homes in Madison Park. Crossley, who moved to Seattle from Phoenix in 1991, has seen the city change a dozen times over — particularly during the past five years. But his experience with Madison Books has taught him “there are places in Madison Park where not everything has changed.”

Crossley, a tall man with a warm voice and an impressive gray beard, backed his way into independent bookselling.

James Crossley is the manager of Madison Books, the neighborhood’s small independent store that’s been open for a little more than a year. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
James Crossley is the manager of Madison Books, the neighborhood’s small independent store that’s been open for a little more than a year. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

“The first official, book-related job I had was with a certain large internet retail company,” he laughs.

Back in 1997, Amazon warehouses didn’t bear much resemblance to the gargantuan fulfillment centers of today — they were chaotic, they were stocked solely with books, DVDs and CDs, and procedures were often rushed into place without testing. Crossley gained a reputation as a problem-solver, first helping implement a new labeling program and then troubleshooting software solutions for distribution.

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Crossley loved working with books all day, but as the scope of the company expanded to “lawn chairs and stuff,” it became an “increasingly uncomfortable place to work, and I was very glad to leave” in 2003. Crossley knew he wanted to keep working with books, albeit on a more human scale. He was hired at Bailey/Coy Books, his local independent bookstore: “It was the center of the neighborhood at that time.” He also worked part time at Island Books on Mercer Island, eventually switching over to Island full time.

By that point, Crossley had found his vocation. He became an advocate for and leader of the region’s bookselling community, working with the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association to create and promote Seattle Independent Bookstore Day and its popular Passport Challenge program.

Eventually, Phinney Books owner Tom Nissley approached Crossley with an offer: he and lifelong Madison Park resident Susan Moseley were planning to open a bookstore that would serve as a spiritual successor to Madison Park Books, a shop that served the community for three decades. Did Crossley want to manage the new store?

“For the first time in a professional capacity, somebody asked me a question where I immediately thought, ‘Yes,’ as opposed to, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready for that,'” Crossley says.

About a year later, Madison Books has a staff of four booksellers and a surprisingly comprehensive collection of thousands of books crammed into a bright room that is smaller than the master bathrooms in a few nearby Madison Park mansions. “I love the space. It’s got way more in it than people expect,” Crossley says. Customers are routinely surprised to find a book they expected to special-order is in fact stocked on the stylish metal shelves of the bookstore.

Over the next year, Crossley wants to expand Madison Books’s schedule of events. The store runs a popular children’s story-time series, and it can comfortably seat 20 attendees at readings, but Madison Books has partnered with the nearby Parkshore senior living community to host public events that seat up to 100 people comfortably, and nearby businesses have expressed interest in co-hosting other literary events. Crossley says he thinks the store ultimately will have the capacity to host events “every other week or so.”

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Though the summer brought plenty of lucrative beach-bound shoppers, Crossley says the majority of customers live in the neighborhood. “The way traffic is in this town, people really don’t want to have a reason to leave wherever they are, which benefits us.” He often orders new titles with specific customers in mind — “oh, Jim will like this book” — bringing a new intimacy to his bookselling experience, and serving the shop’s mission to be “rooted in the place and get to know its people, and their tastes.”

What’s Madison Park reading?

James Crossley reveals some of the books that neighbors have placed on Madison Books’ bestseller list.

Scandinavian author Tove Jansson is “best known, to the extent that she’s known at all, for her children’s book series, ‘Moomin,’” Crossley explains. But “The Summer Book,” a collection of short anecdotes about an imaginative young girl and her embittered grandmother spending the summer on a Finnish island, brings Jansson’s aura of delight and discovery to a story for adults. Crossley calls it “a wonderfully smart book, a book of deep feeling that’s not sentimental or mawkish at all.”

Seattle’s own University of Washington Press this year published “Fishes of the Salish Sea,” which Crossley defines as “this triple-decker combination of an art book and a scientific study of every fish in the waters of the Puget Sound and connected waterways — like Audubon, but for the 21st century.” The gorgeous three-book set is packed with illustrations and information about the region’s aquatic life. Crossley wasn’t sure if customers would balk at the hefty price tag, but he says the book’s visual appeal has charmed readers from the day it entered the shop.

Richard Rapport’s “Seattle’s Medic One,” Crossley explains, tells the history of how “the whole system of emergency medicine across the country, even across the world, originated here.” Rapport did a reading of his regional history at Madison Books that packed the store, and then customers who attended the reading talked about the book with their neighbors, who continue to march into Madison Books to buy copies. It’s a true definition of an organic neighborhood bestseller, powered by enthusiastic word-of-mouth.

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Madison Books, 4118 E. Madison St., 206-325-3160, madisonbks.com