The top of Queen Anne Hill, according to Queen Anne Book Company (QABC) bookseller Melanie Venhaus, is “a town on top of Seattle, with its own vibe. And so we’re the little town bookshop for the town on the hill.”
Queen Anne Book Company has been serving the neighborhood from 1811 Queen Anne Ave. N. for six years, but it builds on a history stretching back more than two decades. Three QABC booksellers previously worked for Queen Anne Books, the independent bookstore that served the community from the same location for 15 years.
When Queen Anne Books closed in 2012, its landlord wanted a new bookstore to take its place. Eagle Harbor Book Company bookseller Janis Segress expressed interest in fulfilling her lifelong dream of running her own bookshop, and the landlord introduced her to Judy and Krijn de Jonge, two Queen Anne neighbors who were interested in investing. Though it began as a kind of arranged marriage, the partnership has since flourished.
Segress says Queen Anne Book Company opened with only a quarter of its shelves filled. That was by design. “We were very encouraging of our customers to tell us what they wanted. So our neighborhood helped build this store’s inventory from the beginning” with suggestions and recommendations.
Every customer request, no matter how small, is brought to Segress. She’s currently thinking over a proposal that “Self-Help” is too old-fashioned a category name for a modern bookstore. The customer who made the request suggested renaming the section either “Self-Actualization” or, simply, “Mindfulness.” Segress is debating the options.
One of the most striking details you’ll notice upon entering Queen Anne Book Company is that the store is remarkably clean and fastidiously organized. Finding a misshelved book evokes the same rare, naughty thrill one feels upon discovering a typo in The New Yorker. This thoughtfulness encourages customers to relax into the experience of browsing the cozy, well-lit space.
So what is Queen Anne reading? Segress says her clientele is deeply interested in current events. Queen Anne Book Company also sells more cookbooks and history books than other stores of its size. Lots of “retired academics” live in the neighborhood, Segress says, and Queen Anne enjoys a lively cooking culture even while other neighborhoods opt for takeout.
Above all else, books about social justice are popular with Queen Anne Book Company customers. Interest is especially strong for “How to Be an Antiracist,” a new book by Ibram X. Kendi. They’re also buying “Beast Rider,” a middle-reader novel by Tony Johnston and María Elena Fontanot de Rhoads about a young Mexican boy who makes his way north to the U.S. by train. Along with Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility,” which has been a bestseller at the store for a year now, these books reflect a neighborhood’s desire to reach beyond its mostly white, mostly affluent worldview.
That compassion doesn’t stop at the margins of the page. A couple of weeks ago, Segress received a call from a customer who’s “retired now and so he walks the streets of Seattle all the time.” The customer, who prefers to be anonymous, told Segress, “I’ve been walking by more and more families living on the streets, and it just hit me that every single child deserves to have a bedtime story.” He gave a large renewable endowment to Queen Anne Book Company as “book stewards” to get books into the hands of homeless children.
“The whole team is going to have input” on selections for the kids, Segress says, and the books will be distributed to families in need through Mary’s Place and local books-to-prisoners programs.
Not every bookstore embarks on a partnership like this with their customers, but the booksellers of Queen Anne Book Company are uncommonly good at their job. Kimberly Johnston has been on staff for a year-and-a-half, and a Queen Anne Book Company customer since the very beginning. Johnston’s daughter had a hard time learning how to read, and two longtime Queen Anne Books and Queen Anne Book Company booksellers, Tegan Tigani and Wendee Wieking, helped boost her confidence and develop a reading habit. Watching her daughter’s reading life open up convinced Johnston that she wanted to work at Queen Anne Book Company, too.
Tigani and Wieking “are great at really deeply listening and hearing what you’ve read before, what your interests are, what you might like your interests to be,” Johnston says. Any dumb old algorithm can recommend a book; Johnston says it’s that “gentle push” to read something a little more complex, a little darker, a little less comfortable than what you might have chosen on your own that makes bookselling an art.
Here are three books Queen Anne Book Company manager and co-owner Janis Segress has loved lately:
“Solitude & Company” is an oral history of Gabriel García Márquez’s life by Silvana Paternostro. Whether you’re a superfan or not, Segress says this biography as told by García Márquez’s “nearest and dearest — childhood friends, teachers, fellow musicians, lovers, girlfriends” — is a “fascinating narrative account” in its own right.
Segress says Melinda Gates’ memoir “Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World” was a surprising page-turner. Gates, she says, is “unique in that she comes from a position of power, but she’s so conscientious and mindful of the way she walks through the world.” It’s “a timely message about women and power” for audiences in need of an inspiring reminder that they can create change.
When Segress read Leif Enger’s new novel “Virgil Wander,” she admits she “was in a place where I needed something hopeful.” “Virgil Wander” provided that hope and then some. The book — about a man who keeps his small town alive by opening “an old-fashioned cinema” — calls back to the optimistic glory days of the American novel.