Ingrid Miller opened Three Trees Books with her husband Timothy in 2019. The tiny Burien shop is cozy and inviting — roughly 10,000 titles in stock, along with a small but thoughtfully selected array of candles, tea, aprons and greeting cards. Three Trees was steadily building out its customer base and perfecting its inventory until just after the shop’s one-year anniversary, when COVID arrived in Washington state and the lockdown began.
Seattle’s independent bookstores had a particularly tough 2020. Lockdowns were necessary to protect public health at the dawn of the pandemic, but booksellers like Miller found it psychologically and economically distressing to close their doors to the public. And then it was mentally taxing to reconfigure their face-to-face business models to an uneasy hybrid of online sales, curbside pickup and limited occupancy.
For Miller, as for so many others, all that mental stress took a toll: “For two or three months, I felt like I couldn’t pick up a book,” Miller admits to me over the phone. She says her inability to read while stuck at home with nothing but free time felt “really strange and just counterintuitive.”
So take heart, gentle reader: If you had trouble getting lost in books this year, you’re not alone. Even the experts have had a bad time of it. For many of Seattle’s independent booksellers, the stresses of 2020 interfered mightily with the pleasure of a good book. It’s hard to empathize with the struggles of fictional characters or focus on a deeply researched historical narrative when there’s a pandemic, protests and a presidential election all going on right outside your window.
But even in the middle of two or three interlinked crises, people look to booksellers for comfort. When customers started to reach out to Miller for recommendations to soothe their troubled hearts and minds, her bookish guilt kicked in. “I definitely felt the twin tensions of not having my own joy of reading and also feeling like a terrible bookseller,” she says.
Miller sought out a book that could revive her love of reading, and she found it in “Circe,” a novel by Madeline Miller (no relation) that puts a feminist spin on the Odyssey.
“Circe” delivered “a magical combination of a great riveting story, mythology and a writing style that somehow evokes classic poetry,” Miller says. She credits the book for “getting me through 2020 because it’s all about how the Greek gods are crazy and unpredictable and do horrible things to people — and so it somehow made the real world a little less horrific for me.” Compared to Zeus’ capriciousness, coronavirus seems downright pedestrian.
Kari Ferguson opened Oh Hello Again, Seattle’s newest bookstore, on Capitol Hill’s 15th Avenue East last month. The shop is founded on a unique concept called “bibliotherapy” that should resonate for frazzled book-lovers in 2020. Ferguson believes “that reading novels or fiction can help us with problems or concerns that we have in our own lives.” Basically, a customer can come in, talk with Ferguson about what’s on their mind, and then leave the shop with a flight of novels that will guide them to a healthier emotional state.
But this year, “just the act of sitting down and opening a book has been hard, I think, for a lot of people,” Ferguson says. What book coached her through the worst year in living memory? “I really enjoyed ‘The Book of Longings’ by Sue Monk Kidd,” she says. The novel’s high concept — described by Ferguson as “what if Jesus had a feminist wife?” — inspired her to see Jesus as “a real person, rather than the idealized leader that we think of.”
Ana, the woman at the center of the book, faces unexpected challenges that “mold her into an incredibly strong woman,” Ferguson explains.
“2020 has been very unexpected for all of us,” Ferguson says. “We’ve had to do things that we didn’t think we would, and we’ve not been able to do things that we wanted to do. But going through those kinds of situations can bring out results that maybe we wouldn’t have found otherwise.”
But 2020 wasn’t all pandemic, all the time. As Black Lives Matter protests highlighted police violence and America’s systemic racism this summer, anti-racist books topped bookstore bestseller charts around the nation, and local booksellers found solace in powerful new books by authors of color.
Celina Muñoz, a bookseller at Redmond’s Brick & Mortar Books, was instantly drawn to Charles Yu’s novel about Asian American representation in Hollywood, “Interior Chinatown.” “I’m a gigantic TV and film buff,” Muñoz says, “and it’s written in the form of a screenplay, so that really spoke to me.”
But beyond being “a very fun, creative read,” Muñoz recognized a deeper resonance with “Interior Chinatown.”
“I’m Hispanic and have grandparents who were born in Mexico,” she explains. The protagonist’s experience of “having people look at you differently than they look at someone else simply because of your name or the color of your skin” was relatable, and the way the protagonist confronts those expectations and “uses them to his advantage” was empowering.
Rosa Hernandez, a bookseller at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, discovered “A Mind Spread Out on the Ground,” a memoir-in-essays by Canadian Indigenous author Alicia Elliott, on Instagram. The cover drew her in, and Hernandez immediately fell in love with Elliott’s “strong voice.”
“I felt very seen when I read that book,” Hernandez enthuses. “I’m not Indigenous — I’m Latina — but a lot of the things that she went through, I went through, too.”
“People had a lot of time on their hands this year to just think and reflect,” Hernandez says, and all that reflection can be lonely work. Reading Elliott’s essays made her realize, “oh, wait — I’m not alone, and a lot of people experienced the same things I have, and they’re openly talking about it.”
This year, “none of the new books that I’ve been reading have really landed,” says Emma Nichols, a manager at Elliott Bay Book Company. “So I’ve been going back to old favorites. When all of these horrible things are happening in the world, you’ve got to find comfort where you can,” she says. Nichols’ reinvestigations brought her back to “Fire Logic,” the first book in a fantasy quadrology called the Elemental Logic series by Laurie J. Marks. Why is this the book for 2020? Nichols says, plainly, “I really think it holds the answers to all of our problems.”
The Elemental Logic series is “basically the story of an entire society reckoning with their past and their perceived future. It’s about knowing you have to demolish the present in order to rebuild a better future.” It sounds like a heady theme, but it’s also a compelling story, told beautifully: “The characters are just so well drawn, and even the villains are given just as much color and shading until they become indistinguishable from the heroes.”
Nichols says Marks excels at writing a story that inspires readers to “learn to be flexible and constantly reevaluate where you are, which is such a good message for 2020.”
Talking to these five exceptional booksellers, it’s clear that no one should feel bad for botching their 2020 New Year’s resolutions to read more. If you weren’t able to connect with a book on any meaningful level this year, that’s OK. In times like these, it’s vital to grant yourself a little grace, even as you prepare to do better next time. The right book for you is out there somewhere, and it will absolutely find you in 2021 — with the help of your neighborhood bookseller.