For years, Shoreline resident Christina Gilbreath fantasized about owning her own record store. A nurse by trade, Gilbreath spent her spare time listening to records, blogging about music and decorating a cozy imaginary storefront — the kind of place where she could geek out about her favorite bands with customers.
But then, everything changed. “In 2019, right before COVID happened, my mother passed away from complications of myeloma and a 14-year battle with cancer,” Gilbreath says.
Soon after her mother died, Gilbreath’s father shared a family secret: Her mother “had always wanted to open a used bookstore, and had been collecting used books over the years to sell in her store. When she passed, I inherited probably about 40 boxes of used books,” Gilbreath says with a little bit of wonder in her voice.
Gilbreath isn’t exactly sure why her mother never shared her dream of owning a bookstore with her, but she never hid her love of books — sci-fi and fantasy novels were her favorite — and she passed that passion for reading on to Gilbreath.
Her mother’s unfulfilled dream of owning a bookstore seemed to mirror Gilbreath’s long-held desire to own a record shop. “So I decided to merge the two, as kind of a legacy project,” Gilbreath says. “It took me about a year after she passed, just to grieve and figure out all the logistics of opening up a store online.”
The Wise Owl Books & Music opened as an online store in October 2020. The all-knowing owl in the shop’s name is Gilbreath’s tribute to her mother. “I don’t know if your mom’s the same way, but my mom knew everything,” Gilbreath says. “You could ask her anything and she always had an answer.”
Gilbreath was still working full time as a nurse, so starting with internet retail was a matter of convenience. But even with millions of people shopping from the comfort of their couches during the pandemic, customers just weren’t coming to the site. “It wasn’t gaining the traction I needed it to, and so in April of last year I started doing pop-ups around town.”
On her days off, Gilbreath would haul boxes of books and records around North Seattle, opening temporary tiny stores in the corner of coffee shops and brewpubs and striking up conversations with anyone who’d talk to her. That’s when things started to click. “I always enjoy talking about books and music,” she says, “and the conversations were great.”
The most welcoming location for Wise Owl’s pop-ups was Pilgrim Coffeehouse, a stylish new coffee shop that had recently graduated from a food truck into a gorgeous space tucked into the Oak Tree Village shopping center on Aurora Avenue North. Gilbreath started selling a small selection of kids books, literary fiction, cookbooks and genre paperbacks every Saturday morning, and Pilgrim’s young customer base became dedicated browsers who’d drop by to check out her stock.
“Everybody just kept asking, ‘where’s your storefront, where can we come visit you,’” Gilbreath laughs. At the same time, she expanded her stock to include new books along with her mother’s used books to meet customer demand. “I started adding new inventory with no place to showcase it, and they were just collecting dust most of the time. So the storefront came up a lot sooner than I thought it would.”
On Dec. 4, Wise Owl Books & Music opened in a dog-friendly space at 2223 N. 56th St. in Tangletown, and now Christina Gilbreath is officially the owner of the newest bookstore in Seattle. A selection of stickers, pins, candles and cards from local artists greet browsers as they enter the store. The shop is spacious, with two large shelves of sci-fi, mystery, and young adult novels lining the walls and a couple of smaller shelves of nonfiction and children’s books filling out the space. In the back is a cozy alcove filled with records — U2 and Elle King peek out of the racks — and a pair of welcoming deep leather armchairs. And above the entrance is the Wise Owl’s logo — a moonlit owl staring out from the branches of a tree, designed by Gilbreath’s husband Daniel.
Gilbreath was careful to not open Wise Owl near any other existing bookstore — not an easy feat in book-drunk Seattle — but she’s still been blown away by the love the Tangletown community is lavishing on the shop. It’s not unusual at any time of day for people to burst into the store and effusively thank her for opening in the neighborhood. Right now, she says the store’s stock “leans more toward sci-fi and fantasy, but there is historical fiction and mysteries and a little bit of everything for everyone.” She’s paying attention to the special orders people are making, and the shop’s mystery selection is already starting to swell by customer demand.
Talking to Gilbreath, it’s hard to not get swept up in the possibilities that Wise Owl offers. She’s still doing monthly Saturday pop-ups at Pilgrim Coffeehouse, and she hopes in the months and years ahead to make Wise Owl a community hub for Tangletown, with game nights, readings, local artists’ work on the walls, live music and book club offerings. You can tell by talking to her that the Wise Owl represents a dream come true — or technically, two women’s dreams coming true together.
What are The Wise Owl Books and Music’s customers reading?
“I have not been able to keep ‘A Psalm for the Well-Built‘ by Becky Chambers on my shelves,” says Gilbreath. The book, the first in a sci-fi series about a sentient robot who consults a monk to explore the meaning of need, “is just a big warm hug. I’ve actually recommended it to a couple of nurse friends of mine, and they come back and say ‘I didn’t know I needed this book.'”
One of the children’s books that has quickly become a store bestseller is “It Fell from the Sky,” a picture book by brothers Terry and Eric Fan. “It’s about a marble that falls from the sky and all the insects are trying to figure out what it is,” Gilbreath says. “It’s really cute and very well illustrated.”
Gilbreath says dual-timeline novels — stories with braided narratives set in the present day and the distant past — have been unexpectedly popular. Wise Owl customers have made Sarah Penner’s novel “The Lost Apothecary,” which was just released in paperback this month, a huge hit for the store. “I guess you could call it almost a mystery,” she says, “because the present-day character finds a little piece of glass and ends up solving a puzzle that happened back in the 1800s. It’s an interesting way of exploring how the past affects the modern day.”