Brick & Mortar Books opened earlier this year in Redmond Town Center. It’s run by the Ullom family — three generations help out — and you can feel the good vibes when you step in.
Haven’t you always dreamed of owning an independent bookstore? Of spending your days in a cozy book-lined space that smells of coffee and fresh paper and contentment, chatting up authors and recommending great books to your friends and neighbors?
“I think half the people I know have had that dream,” said Dan Ullom last week. (Hand raised, here.) He was speaking from — you guessed it — the brand-new bookstore that he now owns with his family. Brick & Mortar Books opened earlier this summer in Redmond Town Center, in a space that formerly held an Eddie Bauer store.
While they don’t sell coffee (no need, you can get it just steps away), the rest of the picture seems just right: an airy room, comfy armchairs, shelves and shelves of sparkling volumes. One of a tiny number of Eastside indie bookstores specializing in new books (it joins BookTree in Kirkland and Island Books on Mercer Island), Brick & Mortar hopes to become what the best bookstores are: a hub for its community.
Ullom, who taught for 14 years at Cascade Ridge Elementary in Sammamish, said he’d long imagined this moment. “A lot of what teachers do is getting kids inspired to read,” he said. But the initial spark came from his mother, Tina Ullom, a recently retired school librarian at Rachel Carson Elementary. She read a 2015 New York Times story about the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” author Jeff Kinney, who opened a bookstore in his adopted hometown of Plainville, Massachusetts. “What’s the thing that everybody loves and treasures the most?” Kinney said in the story. “It’s a bookstore.”
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“It was such a moving article,” Tina remembered, thinking that such an endeavor seemed like “the one thing I would come out of retirement for.” With the support of Tina’s husband, John, a former environmental engineer who’s now a consultant for resource companies, and Dan’s wife, Heidi, a pediatric oncology nurse at Seattle Children’s hospital, the dream became a reality.
The Ulloms did their homework: studying the business, attending workshops and conventions, talking to other local bookstore owners (all of whom, they said, have been wonderfully supportive). They spent time looking for just the right location, ending up at Redmond Town Center, which hasn’t housed a bookstore since the local Borders closed in 2011.
And about that name? Dan said it was born out of a conversation with a tech friend (who, upon hearing of Dan’s plans, said incredulously, “A brick and mortar bookstore?”) and that it has its own story. Wanting to own the URL brickandmortarbooks.com, Dan did some research and found that it was owned by a man named Jesse Taylor. “I wrote to him,” said Dan, “and he wrote back saying, tell me about your store.” Dan, worried about how much the address might cost, explained his plans.
“[Taylor] wrote back, saying ‘You can have it, but be sure to invite me and my wife, Marissa Meyer, to your store.’” Meyer, explained a still-astonished Dan, is a best-selling author of young adult fiction who lives in Tacoma — and who was delighted to appear at the store’s grand opening. Upon hearing that, said Tina, “We thought that it was meant to be.”
Brick & Mortar Books currently offers about 16,000 titles, with a particular emphasis on children’s/young adult books (which make up about 40 percent of the stock). In a twist worthy of a novel, its shelves have a bookish history: some are from the now-closed University Book Store in Bellevue; others date from that long-shuttered nearby Borders space, which sat empty for many years. (They were, Dan admits, pretty dirty, but shined up nicely.)
Dan and Tina work in the store full time, John puts in 30-40 hours a week, and six part-timers round out the staff. Also helping out are Dan and Heidi’s kids: 12-year-old Haley (a book lover who, according to her dad, has read the “Harry Potter” books 32 times) and 9-year-old Owen, who does his part by alphabetizing shelves and, on my visit, demonstrated swift facility with a cash register.
An unofficial — and unexpected — additional “staffer” is former Seattle sportscaster Tony Ventrella, a strong supporter of the store who’s served as a guest bookseller, advised on social-media promotion and helped with guest appearances (particularly Daniel James Brown, author of the wildly popular nonfiction book “The Boys in the Boat,” who’s scheduled to speak Aug. 11). “We talk once a week,” said Dan, noting that Ventrella is himself a former bookstore owner, with plenty of advice.
The Ulloms know that it’s no easy trick to sustain a business like theirs, when they can’t offer the discounts available from online booksellers. Instead, they offer a personal touch. They’re listening to what their customers want — Tina noted that they have greatly expanded their selection of greeting cards, after learning that no other Redmond Town Center store sells them — and are heartened by recent reports that show a rise in independent bookstores nationwide. The anecdotal evidence is encouraging. “Hundreds of people have walked in the door, saying ‘Thank you for being here,” Tina said.
And while they’re busy learning the ups and downs of the book business (John, with a grin, noted that he may have over-ordered in the romance category), the rewards are already obvious. Tina remembered how, at a recent Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association meeting, “everyone said, ‘I wake up in the morning and I’m happy to go to work. I love what I do.’ ” You can feel that good vibe at their store.
A postscript, for those of you still dreaming: Seattle Mystery Bookshop, beloved by local crime-fiction fans for 27 years, is up for sale. (Information: seattlemystery.com.) I’m just putting it out there. Maybe someone else’s dream can come true.