Neighborhood Reads

On a sunny Saturday in January, a teenager shopping for her first fountain pen at Peter Miller Books in Pioneer Square turned to her friend and made a pronouncement.

“This kind of shop is my favorite kind of shop,” she said.

What kind of a shop is Peter Miller Books? A thoughtfully curated bookstore with a reputation that attracts lovers of design from the world over.

It’s a bookstore, certainly, first and foremost. Books about graphic design, architecture, mushrooming, fashion and cooking greet browsers from stacks on tables and shelves of tall bookshelves lining the brick walls.

But Peter Miller Books also sells cheese graters. Brightly colored radios stand watch over the shop on a shelf behind the glass cases displaying dozens of pens. You can buy a sleek juicer at Peter Miller Books, too, and a friendly little desk lamp from Copenhagen, Denmark, and a shiny Swiss pencil sharpener that wouldn’t look out of place on the desk of a titan of industry from the 1950s.


The one unifying theme of Peter Miller Books — from the eclectic merchandise on its shelves to the curation of the bookstore itself — is the glorification of design. Every single object is beautiful, and feels sturdy when taken in hand. Every book is interested in the pursuit of beauty and usefulness, and the art of living.

Actually, scratch that — there are two unifying themes to Peter Miller Books. There’s the “glorification of design” thing, obviously, but the second unifying theme is Peter Miller himself. Miller has hand-selected every item in the shop, and he loves to extol their utilities and charms in exuberant language.

Take those pens that the teenager was browsing.

“There’s a wonderful pen called a Tradio. It’s a felt-tip fiber fountain pen, refillable,” Miller said, pulling a dark-green specimen from the counter. “You can only get it from this one little company in Tokyo. I didn’t quite understand it at first, and then I realized it’s amazing.”

Miller proffered the pen and a pad of scrap paper, and the writing experience was, in fact, smoother than the back of an infant’s knee.

“It’s great, isn’t it? It’s only a $10 pen. But it’s just something,” Miller said, letting that last word hang sizzling in the air a moment, as perfectly selected as every other item in the shop.

Miller opened his bookstore 45 years ago in a different Pioneer Square location. “I always say if it had been a Broadway show, we would’ve closed in three days,” Miller joked. But his monklike commitment to elegant design and his impeccable curation eventually attracted a committed fan base. The shop moved to Belltown in the 1980s and bounced around a couple of blocks.


Amid all those closings and openings, Miller said, “our wonderful database of architects and designers has always saved us. When we needed to move, they would all get together and laugh and talk and figure out how the hell the store was supposed to look. And that made all the difference in the world.”

Six years ago, Miller decided to bring the shop back to its Pioneer Square roots.

“The shop needed a place where it could be subtle and smart and look how it’s supposed to look,” the store’s owner said.

Located on the far end of a parking lot across from Elliott Bay Book Company’s old location at First and Main, Miller admits that his latest location isn’t the easiest to find. “I looked at all these other locations and each one of them made more sense than this one. But I still think this is the best one,” he said. “It’s the loveliest one.”

Looking around at the store’s brick and chrome and glass and exposed wood, it’s impossible to argue.

But why, when Miller graduated from Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences with a degree in English in 1970, did he move to Seattle, of all places, to open a bookstore devoted to architecture and design? Seattleites, after all, have a reputation for prizing comfort over fashion — the cozy fleece vest over the fitted Fendi top. Isn’t Seattle a little too, well, frumpy to suit Miller’s vision?


He laughed at the question. “It’s frumpy in the front, you know what I mean?”

Seattle might be known for dowdy coders and practical outdoor clothing, but Miller said that “beneath the company town was this enormously hardworking, small, willful group of actors and architects and designers and everything else doing remarkable things. It’s the best town to get your work done and not be famous for it in all of America.”

In fact, the Puget Sound region launched many world-class architects whose work is celebrated in books throughout the shop: Steven Holl, Tom Kundig, Gordon Walker, Paul Hayden Kirk. Their work helped create a Pacific Northwest aesthetic that is now influencing designers, architects and artists worldwide.

And now design aficionados from all over the world flock to Peter Miller Books to meet the man who devoted his legendary bookselling talents to Seattle design before there was a coherent Seattle design to speak of.

On that day in the bookstore last month, a couple visiting from Singapore bought a copy of Miller’s own book, “How to Wash the Dishes,” which he happily inscribed for them. A man from Great Britain bought a rare copy of Colin Rowe’s “The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa.”

“Look at you!” Miller enthused, genuinely proud of his customer’s selection. “One of the great books ever written. A brilliant book!”


As his bookstore nears a half-century of continuous operation, Miller believes its model is more relevant than ever.

“I think shops will come in a great profusion soon, and help to bring back towns,” Miller said. Deeply personal street-level storefronts with strong personalities, and not big-box stores, are the future, he hopes. After all, Miller asked rhetorically: “When they go on vacation, all the heads of the great discounters like Costco and Amazon, where do they go?”

He answered his own question.

“They all go to Europe so they can go shopping, where you can walk the streets and look at the shops.”

They want what every human wants out of a shop, Miller explained: “To see things, buy things, be pleased.”

What are Peter Miller Books customers reading?

Ask Miller what books he’s excited about lately, and he’ll become a dervish, spinning around the shelves of Peter Miller Books and constructing a stack for your appraisal.

“Everyday Play: A Campaign Against Boredom” from London design press Redstone has lately been seducing customers from its place of pride by the front door. With page after page of eclectic games, challenges and entertainments, “I just think it’s a great book,” Miller said.


“John Cage: A Mycological Foray” is a two-volume collection surveying the celebrated composer’s lifelong love affair with mushrooms. “When he was a kid, someone told Cage, ‘I’ll teach you how to forage for mushrooms, and then whatever happens, even if you stay broke, you won’t die of starvation,’” Miller explained. “And so all of his life, he was a mushroom hunter.”

Miller, himself an author of the excellent cookbook “Lunch at the Shop,” is a fan of books that highlight exceptional dining experiences. “Dinner in Rome,” he said, is about “two Norwegians in Rome reviewing the history of Italian food from what they’ve learned from eating in this one restaurant for two years.”

“This is a grand book,” Miller said, pulling out a copy of “Noma 2.0: Vegetable, Forest, Ocean.” Written by the staff of the Copenhagen restaurant that was widely considered among the best in the world until it went on hiatus earlier this year, this lushly illustrated book looks at meals through three seasons: “the vegetables from spring to summer, then the mushrooms and the animals in the forest in the fall, and then the ocean until you get to spring, when the seafood is the best.”

“And here’s a brilliant book from Paris that we found in Stockholm when we were visiting our daughter,” Miller said, setting a copy of Elias Guenoun’s “198 Wood Joints” atop the pile. 

“A book on just wood joints,” Miller said, “198 of them. That’s all they are. There’s not a word spoken about them — they’re brilliantly, perfectly drawn to scale.”

Peter Miller Books

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 304 Alaskan Way S., Post Alley, Seattle; 206-441-4114;