In the 1990s, many booksellers considered chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders to be the Evil Empire — the big, invasive corporations forcing local independent bookstores out of business with their wide selections and deep discounts. But then the convenience and affordability of online retailing outpaced big-box booksellers, and Borders Books & Music shuttered all their stores in 2011. Now Barnes & Noble locations are the only bookstore in many American cities, and as more B & N locations close, wide swaths of the country — particularly poorer and nonwhite areas — are becoming book deserts. A growing number of American towns and cities have zero brick-and-mortar bookstores within a reasonable driving distance.
This fall, for instance, when the Barnes & Noble at 626 106th Ave. N.E. shifts operations to Crossroads Bellevue, downtown Bellevue will have zero bookstores. Nearby, Issaquah became a book desert when the local Barnes & Noble closed at the beginning of the pandemic. But two months ago, a pair of relieved Seattle Times readers alerted us via email that Issaquah’s literary drought had officially ended when a new outpost from national bookstore chain Walls of Books opened in the strip mall at 1025 N.W. Gilman Blvd.
Issaquah’s Walls of Books is exactly what it says: A storefront packed with tall, gleaming white bookshelves stuffed with books. At the front of the store, you’ll find bestsellers and hardcover new releases along with puzzles, board games, and sidelines like coffee mugs and socks. But the majority of the store is stocked with affordable used paperbacks of every genre and subject.
It’s a great bookstore in particular for hardcore readers — people with a multiple-book-a-week habit. “We do have regular customers already,” Issaquah Walls of Books owner Gail Vaughn says. “Some of them will get a book or two a week, and then they’ll bring them back in to trade the next week. And then some of them will come in maybe once a month and bring in a whole bag.”
Browse around long enough and you’ll likely watch one of those transactions — a customer carries in a paper grocery bag bulging with freshly read mysteries, romance novels or sci-fi series, eager to trade them in for a fresh bag of books to bring home. The store offers credit for up to 50% of the price of in-stock used books. “So if a customer is going to buy a $4 used book, they’ll always pay $2 out of pocket for the book and then their store credit will cover the other half,” Vaughn explains, adding that customers returning books with Walls of Books price stickers on them “get half of their purchase price back in credit automatically.”
“We love the trades because they keep books on our shelves and customers feel like they’re getting a quality deal for what they’re paying,” Vaughn says.
Vaughn has lived in Issaquah since 2019, and the Issaquah shop is her second bookstore in the region. She was a high school teacher in Georgia, but she wanted a change when her family moved to the Pacific Northwest. “I didn’t have any history of bookselling before I opened our bookstore in Covington,” she says, ”but I had always loved bookstores, and so I thought since we were moving to a whole new state it would be a great time to try something different.”
Vaughn’s family frequently shopped at the original store in the Walls of Books chain in Georgia, and she decided opening a franchise would be a good entry to the world of bookselling. The Issaquah and Covington locations are the only Walls of Books outposts west of the Rockies — the chain is largely concentrated in the South, along with one store each in Kansas, Iowa and Ohio.
For two and a half years the Covington location has kept Vaughn busy, and its success inspired her to keep an eye out for spaces where she could open a shop closer to home. “Our kids go to school here in Issaquah, and we’re members of this community,” she says. “We shopped at the Barnes & Noble before it closed, and we’re really happy to be able to bring a bookstore here.”
For now, Vaughn is training new staffers to help run both stores and she’s learning what kind of books her neighbors like. She says Issaquah readers are more interested in politics and sports books than her Covington customers. While she’s currently reading her way through all of Agatha Christie’s mysteries — “I think I’m about 30 books deep into those,” she estimates — Vaughn says customers recommend new books to her all the time, and it’s easy to get sidetracked. As a bookseller, “you have a lot of conversations with people about things that you never would have expected to talk about. It’s really exciting to see other people be excited about books, and their excitement is infectious.”
As a former teacher, Vaughn says, “seeing kids come in and get excited about reading couldn’t make me happier.” Vaughn is looking forward to establishing a regular children’s story time event at both locations, and she’s already worked with school librarians in both Issaquah and Covington to order books for schools and to “provide books and gift certificates to give to students who have met reading goals.”
When asked what she wants Seattle Times readers to know about her Walls of Books locations, Vaughn evangelizes about the neighborly art of bookselling. “People in Seattle are probably not going to drive out to Issaquah to go to our bookstore. But they have a bookstore in their community,” she says. “So I’d tell them to support their local bookstore. When they’re gone, you’ll miss them.”
What are Walls of Books customers reading?
“Our most popular book currently is probably ‘Where the Crawdads Sing,’” says Vaughn. Delia Owens’s coming-of-age novel “has been one of our most popular books since we opened in Covington two and a half years ago, but the movie adaptation that came out recently kicked off a resurgence in sales.”
Vaughn says customers request Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” on a daily basis. The novel explores the glamorous and tortured life of a bisexual Hollywood actress in the form of a final interview that she gives on the cusp of turning 80.
Young readers are swept up in graphic novel mania, Vaughn says. “‘The Babysitters Club’ graphic novel series and ‘Dog Man’ are always popular,” and the streaming success of the TV adaptation of Jenny Han’s young adult novel “The Summer I Turned Pretty” inspired an explosion in the book’s sales over the summer.
“Another author that we sell a ton of is Colleen Hoover — and not any one particular book. People just want any book” by the young adult romance novelist who has skyrocketed to fame with the help of rabid fans on TikTok.