One hundred and twenty years ago this month, on the nascent University of Washington campus, a group of students realized they needed a bookstore of their own. “We have depended upon the rather uncertain and inefficient service of the city bookstores long enough,” harrumphed an editorial in the student newspaper. After a vote of the student assembly, the store opened in a small, windowless room in Denny Hall on Jan. 10, 1900. It held, on that first day, no textbooks; due to a lack of operating capital, only items that could be purchased on credit were offered.
University Book Store has come a long way from those bare-shelf days in Denny Hall — which was, at the time, an almost shiny-new building. After a few decades on campus, the store moved in 1925 to 4326 University Way N.E., the former home of a swanky billiards hall. And there it remains to this day, though greatly expanded from its original small storefront: Seattle’s oldest independent bookstore by a half-century or so, still serving UW students and the University District community with books, art supplies, UW-themed gear and gifts. While stores on the Ave come and go over the years, U Book Store has been a constant.
The third-largest university bookstore in the country, U Book Store now has five locations with about 163 employees. And it has a rare distinction among university bookstores nationwide, said the store’s current chief executive officer, Louise Little. (Little has her own lifetime of history with the store: She’s worked there for 40 years, beginning as a temporary cashier.) UBS is one of a very small number of American college bookstores that have students on the board of directors. Initially opened and operated by students, the store was incorporated as a for-profit corporation in 1932, and as a trust in 1964, with UW students, faculty and staff as the beneficiaries of that trust. Its board includes five students, four faculty members and one staff member, who govern long-range strategy for the store.
U Book Store is planning a few events later in the year to celebrate the anniversary. For now, with help from Little and two history books — “University Book Store: A Centennial Pictorial” by Paul Dorpat and “Ninety Years at the University Book Store 1900-1990” by Carol Thomas — here’s a shelf-load of interesting factoids about the store that has served generations of UW students — and many other Seattleites — over the decades.
Local book makes good
U Book Store’s all-time bestselling book is, not surprisingly, one with a strong connection to the university: Daniel James Brown’s nonfiction book, “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics,” about the UW crew team that represented the United States at an Olympic Games shadowed by Hitler. The store has sold approximately 75,000 copies since the book’s publication in 2013.
Wait, what’s a carriage return?
The sale of typewriters was, for decades, a big part of U Book Store’s business; for a time, a neon sign trumpeted the Royal Portable Typewriter brand over the store’s entryway. From the 1920s to the ’40s, the store offered popular typing classes for students. A photo from that era shows a window full of typewriters, with a sign offering “terms as low as $1 a week.”
In its early years, the store provided free blotters and paper clips to its customers, as well as free ink for pens and (into the early 1930s) use of a practice putting green. Until 1954, it maintained a lending library.
A bookstore faceoff
U Book Store has been the Ave’s only bookstore selling new books for a long time — but not always. The general bookstore Hartman’s was across the street from 1958 to 1969, and the Washington Book Store, which opened in 1937, was just a few doors down at 4316 University Way N.E. A direct competitor to U Book Store — it also offered textbooks and student supplies — the Washington Book Store finally closed its doors in 1979. (U Book Store promptly expanded into its former space.)
Queuing up for textbooks
For decades, customers visiting the textbook department would request books from clerks behind a counter, who would fetch the required volumes from an employee-only area. But with some 13,000 students at the UW by the early 1950s, the beginning of each quarter would find students lined up from the counter down two flights of stairs, across the main floor, out onto the sidewalk and down the street. This was clearly untenable, and in 1953, U Book Store became the first major college store to convert to self-service in textbooks.
If you were lucky enough to drop by U Book Store on Open House Day in 1941, you received a treat: a concert from Duke Ellington, who played a baby grand perched on a makeshift platform while a throng of rapt, standing students looked on. Countless other prominent guests visited the store over the years, among them: Jimmy Carter, Alex Haley, Sophia Loren, the entire Clinton clan (Bill, Hillary and Chelsea), Shirley Temple Black, Peter O’ Toole, J.K. Rowling, Maurice Sendak, Julie Andrews and many more.
Multiplication (and subtraction)
The main branch of U Book Store has given birth, you might say, to a younger generation of storelets, including two on the main campus. The Husky Union Building branch opened in the basement in 1952 (moving to its larger upstairs space in 1982) and a branch in the health sciences building on the south campus came in 1968. Bookstores were opened on the Tacoma and Bothell campuses of the UW in 1989. All of these locations, as well as a Husky Central Store in downtown Seattle, are still in operation except for the south campus branch, which closed in 2016. No longer on the roster are the former Bellevue store (opened in 1987, closed in 2017), and the Mill Creek branch (which closed in 2019 after 15 years).
Little said discussions have already begun for “the store of the future.” With the arrival of light rail, the store is preparing for increased foot traffic and starting discussions about the fate of the store’s parking lot. (She hinted to the possibility of building a new store there.) “As retail is evolving, we’re working hard to figure out what that means for University Book Store,” she said, noting that the store launched a robust e-commerce site a year and a half ago.
In the near term, changes are afoot: Recent visitors to the store will have noticed the upper level of the general books department is now empty (though used for author events), and Little said this has been part of a process of examining customer analytics and consolidating the store’s trade-book inventory. Supplies, e-commerce and course materials will move to that area (numerous textbooks are now in digital format, which means the store needs less space for that department), and the basement will eventually be remodeled as an events space. Currently, larger events are held in the University Temple United Methodist Church across the street, but that structure is slated for demolition in December.
The U District continues to change, as does University Book Store. Long may it live.
This story has been updated to reflect that the south campus branch closed in 2016.