You may not be consciously aware of it, but your brain works very hard each time you step into a new bookstore. Your eyes take in swirls of colors on the surrounding shelves. Your nose catches a whiff of paper. And then prehistoric hunter/gatherer instincts start to kick in, pulling a familiar order out of the chaos of sensory input: Here is the fiction section. There are magazines. These books are for children. They’re all arranged alphabetically by the author’s last name.
After taking just a few steps into Oh Hello Again, Seattle’s newest bookshop, at 324 15th Ave. E. on Capitol Hill, the part of your brain devoted to pattern-seeking might feel a tiny twinge of distress. All the usual bookstore trappings are thoughtfully arranged across a small, bright room — a couple of thousand books, greeting cards, stationery, jigsaw puzzles and other bookish sidelines. But the books appear to be out of order — they’re not arranged alphabetically, or into the tried-and-true sections. Children’s books share shelves with literary fiction, genre fiction and comics. For just a second, you might feel unmoored.
But then the pattern begins to come into focus. One shelf, marked “On the Trials of Growing Up and Moving On,” features a spray of books including Raven Leilani’s prickly, sexy debut novel “Luster” and William Steig’s children’s classic about a brave mouse dentist, “Doctor De Soto.” A minute or two of looking around reveals that all the books in Oh Hello Again are categorized emotionally.
The “Being an Outsider (or Wanting to Be Left Alone)” section contains Diane Setterfield’s bestselling novel “The Thirteenth Tale” and Tove Jansson’s melancholy kids chapter book “Moominland Midwinter.” The “For PMS and When You Don’t Want to get Out of Bed” section includes James Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Other shelves promise wisdom for stay-at-home parents, new divorcees and quarantined families. Still more shelves offer balms for those afflicted with existential crises, trauma, tech addiction, boredom and anger.
Oh Hello Again owner Kari Ferguson admits that in the two months the shop has been open, more than a few customers expressed confusion on entering the store.
“It’s really an interactive experience,” Ferguson says. “I want a person to come in and look around and say, ‘What do I need right now? What kind of book would help me in my life based on what I’m going through, or how I’m feeling?’”
The philosophy for Oh Hello Again’s unique categorization was inspired, appropriately enough, by a pair of books. Ferguson was so enthralled by the thesis of Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin’s “The Novel Cure” and “The Story Cure” that she decided to build a whole shop around their concept of “bibliotherapy,” which posits that reading the right novel at the right time can help to console and guide people through moments of great emotional turbulence. (Ferguson reached out to Berthoud and Elderkin for their blessing when she considered opening a bibliotherapy shop, which the authors enthusiastically offered.)
“We’ve tried to really curate the collection so that we have classics and new releases that really speak to those specific topics,” Ferguson says. After just a few minutes of browsing, Oh Hello Again’s unique charm begins to win people over. And the blending of titles inspires browsers to find books that they would usually never encounter in an ordinary bookshop.
“Usually, adults go into a bookstore and they bypass the children’s section completely,” Ferguson says. But she’s sold more than a few copies of Maurice Sendak’s beautiful “Chicken Soup with Rice” to childless adults who discover the book in the section for people who are sick or alone, near titles by Terry McMillan, J.R.R. Tolkien and Sue Monk Kidd. By recontextualizing the books into an unfamiliar category system, Oh Hello Again allows jaded browsers a rare opportunity to see familiar books with new eyes.
“That’s why I called the shop Oh Hello Again,” Ferguson explains. “Because I want it to feel like you’re seeing old friends in these books that you hadn’t thought of for a long time.”
Ferguson is an author herself, and her work is equally focused on the ongoing quest for inspiration and meaning. She’s published “The OCD Mormon,” a memoir of mental illness and faith, and a poetry collection about the experiences of people leaving the Mormon faith titled “For and Behalf Of.” She’s just starting a new book about changes in intergenerational worship in spare moments at the shop.
Though Ferguson happily performs special orders for customers in search of specific titles that are not in stock, the joy of Oh Hello Again is the aimless, boundary-free exploration that we all used to bring to bookstores as children. When you manage to shake off the subconscious constrictions, accrued over years and decades, of what a bookstore can and should be, Oh Hello Again offers a fascinating new array of possibilities.
What are Oh Hello Again customers reading?
Ferguson says “our most popular sections are probably ‘Anti-Racism,’ ‘When You Need a Laugh’ and ‘Climate Change,’” a triumvirate that aptly sums up the major concerns of an average Seattleite in the year 2021. The top-selling books in those sections are local author Ijeoma Oluo’s “Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America”; Jonathan Ames’ comic novel “Wake Up, Sir”; and Michelle Tea’s dystopic novel “Black Wave,” respectively.
Before opening Oh Hello Again, Ferguson founded a kids books shop and publishing lab called Dickens Children’s Books in Vancouver, Washington. Her passion for great children’s literature probably explains why several classic picture books are high on the list of Oh Hello Again’s bestsellers. Near the top is Wanda Gág’s “Millions of Cats,” the story of an old married couple who collect cats to overcome their loneliness. Originally published in 1928, “Millions of Cats” is the “oldest American children’s book still in print,” according to Ferguson.
But not all the shop’s bestsellers are classics. Corinna Luyken’s gorgeous 2017 kid’s book “The Book of Mistakes” is resonating with Oh Hello Again’s readers. Ferguson says its anti-perfectionist message of “embracing your mistakes rather than trying to scratch them off” appeals to both adults and kids — particularly as readers finally put the struggles of 2020 behind them.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.