When the Pacific Place Barnes & Noble shuttered last month, customers on social media lamented the closure of downtown Seattle’s last large bookstore as another sign of the death of literature.
But depending on who you ask, literature is always dying. If Barnes & Noble’s empty husk is bringing you down, just walk 10 minutes southwest to Pike Place Market. There, you’ll find six lively independent bookstores — each with their own institutional personalities. Early spring is the perfect time for a walking tour of the literary market: you can grab an armload of tulips and find a life-changing book or two in one picturesque afternoon.
Our tour starts at the market’s grand entry, in the shadow of its iconic sign. Left Bank Books, a general-interest bookshop with new and used titles, has been worker-owned by an anarchist collective for 46 years. A sprightly bookseller named Ariel says the shop’s science-fiction section “keeps growing and growing,” and that the store is “considering expanding our periodical section” to make up for the closure of First and Pike News, which sold papers and magazines directly across from Left Bank for four decades.
Left Bank stocks socially conscience materials alongside the latest bestsellers from Zadie Smith, Ocean Vuong and William Gibson. Ariel notes with pride that for decades Left Bank was the only place in Seattle that sold Arthur Evans’s seminal pagan history of Western oppression, “Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture.”
Around the corner, you’ll find Lamplight Books. Though it was founded in 2003, Lamplight’s killer poetry section and imposing wall of quality used literary fiction evokes a bygone era of earnest, intellectual Beats. Browsers can find a 27-volume set of Robert Louis Stevenson’s collected works, a like-new copy of Tyehimba Jess’s exquisite poetry collection, “Olio,” and three copies of an Italo Calvino novel that I, an unrepentant Calvino fanatic, had never seen before. (Depending on the translator, it’s either titled “The Path to the Spiders’ Nests” or “The Path to the Nests of Spiders.”)
Once you’ve had your fill of the soft-lit elegance of Lamplight, cross over brick-lined Pike Place — watch out for cars and meandering tourists — and head downstairs for a visit to Lion Heart Book Store, which offers a deep selection of used children’s books and science-fiction paperbacks.
Lion Heart’s success largely comes down to its owner, David Ghoddousi, who can be found holding court behind the counter, singing in the stacks and generally making friends of anyone who walks through the doors. As a testament of Ghoddousi’s charm, the front counter features a fat book of postcards sent by adoring Lion Heart customers from around the world, praising the store and vowing to return soon.
Just down the hall from Lion Heart is Golden Age Collectables, which bills itself as “the world’s oldest comic shop.” If any other comic store can dispute that claim, senior manager Tony Morigi explains, “they haven’t said anything to us about it.” Founded in 1961, Golden Age is crammed full of pop-culture ephemera, graphic novels and movie scripts. Morigi says the young -adult comics section is expanding at a rapid clip, but business, all around, is booming.
Golden Age has become “a destination store,” Moirigi says. “People come to the market to see the guys throwing fish, go to the first Starbucks, eat the little doughnuts and visit us.”
Pike Place’s newest bookstore, a sunny showroom and office for local publisher Chin Music Press, is down another flight of steps. Visitors to Chin Music can witness the entire life cycle of a book: while perusing the publisher’s sumptuously designed volumes, you might overhear Chin Music co-publisher Bruce Rutledge editing the press’s next title. Be sure to pick up “Sugar,” a love story set in, and about, Pike Place Market, written by former Seattle author Anca L. Szilágyi.
Our final stop, BLMF Literary Saloon, is a freewheeling den with good-condition used books stacked on every imaginable semiflat spot. A bump from one unwitting customer’s purse sends a crooked stack of Robert A. Heinlein novels tumbling to the floor. As she stoops to pick the books up, the embarrassed customer’s boyfriend teases her: “Be careful with those! That’s serious literature!”
That’s when BLMF owner JB Johnson dryly chimes in: “I wouldn’t go that far.”
Johnson — he prefers “just JB” — has been selling books in the market for almost two decades. His shop specializes in “the nerdish end of the spectrum,” emphasizing genres and role-playing games and comics. JB loves to spin yarns about his experience interning at Marvel Comics in the 1990s, or the time he saw a popular mystery author jump over the table at a book signing to attack a fan, and he encourages customers to throw in stories of their own. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear the hilarious (but unprintable in a family newspaper) story of how the shop got its name.
Speed-walkers could hit up all of the market’s independent booksellers in less than an hour. But you should allocate a whole day to the mission, bracketing your visits with tea from The Crumpet Shop and sandwiches from Michou Deli. In three floors and less than a mile’s round trip, you can take in a half dozen unique bookselling perspectives piled on top of each other — a whole city’s worth of literary experiences, packed into an area smaller than a city block.