If you want to learn about a Seattle neighborhood, browse the shelves of its independent bookstores. Local bookstores succeed when they place the interests and aspirations of their neighbors over the fads and excesses of national bestseller lists. And every time we buy books from a neighborhood bookseller, we change the bookstore a little bit, too — we shape it to more closely reflect ourselves.
So what better way to understand what 2019 has meant for Seattle than to ask local bookstores for their neighborhood bestsellers — the books that haven’t necessarily dominated national or even Seattle-area bestseller lists, but which have captured the attention of their customers, their booksellers.
For dramatic evidence of how a bookstore reflects its neighborhood, look no further than Secret Garden Books. Suzanne Perry, the store’s event manager, says this year has continued “the sea change in the demographic shift of our Ballard neighborhood.” As Ballard has gotten younger, Perry says, “our sci-fi/fantasy section doubled in volume this year.” The star of this newly enhanced section is “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” by Marlon James. Perry says “key staff members fell in love” with the fantasy novel, which is heavily influenced by African history. “It’s continued to sell briskly through being shortlisted for a National Book Award in the fall, and we’re sure it will continue to lead the way during holiday shopping,” Perry says.
Across the Ballard Locks, Georgiana Blomberg, owner of Magnolia’s Bookstore, says a local birder has charmed the neighborhood. “Molly Hashimoto is a Seattle author who has visited our store several times” and is “beloved by our customers,” Blomberg says. “Her ‘Birds of the West’ was one of our top-selling books this year. It’s an artist’s guide to the illustration of birds, with her own woodcuts and watercolors throughout.”
North Fremont’s Book Larder, the most delightfully food-obsessed bookstore in Seattle, is known for its slate of cooking classes and its walls of gorgeous cookbooks. But store manager Mira Courage says one of their favorite books of 2019 has more than just great recipes and pretty pictures — though it has those, too, featuring dishes from Vietnam, Ethiopia, Syria and India. Courage calls “Recipes for Refuge: Culinary Journeys to America” a “spectacular compilation of recipes and stories from local immigrants and refugees.” Better still, Courage says, proceeds from book sales support Refugee Women’s Alliance, a Seattle-area nonprofit that provides refugees and immigrants services such as ESL classes, vocational training and housing.
At Ada’s Technical Books, the science-minded bookstore, café and meeting space on Capitol Hill, customers can’t stop talking about “Sandworm” by Andy Greenberg. Manager John Sepulveda calls this nonfiction account of technological threats “an engrossing page-turner that reads like a fictional thriller,” which reminds readers of the importance of “internet-security literacy for everyone in the 21st century.”
Terry Tazioli, the publicist at University Book Store, says “A Pilgrimage to Eternity” by Seattle journalist Timothy Egan “is one of our best sellers, and it’s a personal favorite of mine from 2019.” In “Pilgrimage,” Egan documents his quest for religious faith as he walks an ancient pilgrim’s route that spans Europe, from Canterbury to Rome. Tazioli praises Egan for his enthusiasm, “his mastery of history and his beautifully told stories.” It’s rare to find a memoir about religion capturing popular attention, but “just about every time I wander the floor, I see someone with the book in hand, reading,” Tazioli says. “Warms the bookstore heart!”
Our list veers from the sacred at University Book Store to the profane at Georgetown’s Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery. Store manager Larry Reid says “Bad Gateway,” by Beacon Hill cartoonist Simon Hanselmann, is the shop’s bestselling title of the year. Reid has high praise for the “wildly dysfunctional outcasts” in Hanselmann’s latest volume from the series featuring Megg and Mogg. “‘Bad Gateway’ maintains the dark humor of previous installments while adding thinly fictionalized and revealing autobiographical elements,” Reid says. Hanselmann has always been popular with Fantagraphics’ discerning customer base. But over the summer, Reid says, Hanselmann “was the subject of a solo exhibition at Bellevue Art Museum, which greatly enhanced his profile.”
And in Seattle’s newest bookstore, West Seattle’s Paper Boat Booksellers, co-owner Eric Judy says Matt Kracht’s satirical birding book, “Field Guide to the Dumb Birds of North America,” has been a surprise hit. “It’s a book that multiple times brought strangers together,” Judy says. “More than once, there were strangers congregating in a circle and laughing out loud together as they read it. That’s the sort of thing I really like to see in our store.”
This is the thread that connects every one of these disparate neighborhood bestsellers: community. Reading gets a bad rap as a lonely way to spend time, but booksellers understand no great book is enjoyed alone. The books that made the biggest impression with Seattle readers this year are the ones that brought us together.
The most popular book at your Seattle Public Library branch
If you’re a Seattle Public Library patron, odds are you checked out a copy of Michelle Obama’s memoir, “Becoming,” this year. The former first lady’s autobiography tops SPL’s most-loaned lists for the majority of their 26 branches in 2019, followed closely by Delia Owens’s debut novel, “Where the Crawdads Sing.”
Broken out by location, SPL’s most-loaned adult titles are similar everywhere. Seattle readers were intrigued by the low-tech promise of Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism” and the uplifting message of “Educated,” Tara Westover’s account of leaving a survivalist community in search of enlightenment.
But look closely and a few neighborhood bestsellers will arise. Why, for instance, did Stephanie Land’s memoir “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive” appeal more to readers in Beacon Hill than at any other branch? Hard to say — perhaps a local book club drove the loans, or maybe one passionate librarian kept shoving the book into patrons’ hands.
The city is full of literary microclimates. South Park loved Mark Manson’s “Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope,” which failed to crack other neighborhoods’ top-10 lists. Green Lake was particularly infatuated with Yuval Harari’s brilliant anthropological study “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” and the tiny NewHolly branch loaned more copies of Thi Bui’s moving comic-book immigration memoir, “The Best We Could Do,” than libraries twice its size.
The juvenile most-loaned lists are much less homogenous. While Dav Pilkey’s “Dog Man” series, Raina Telgemeier and Mo Willems are popular all over the city, kids at the Central Library in particular were eager to check out “The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food.” Queen Anne’s kids made the “Guinness Book of World Records 2020” a chart-topper. And Fremont’s children demonstrated remarkably good taste by checking out Andrea Beaty’s marvelous ode to scientific adventure, “Ada Twist, Scientist,” more than any other neighborhood. Still, the kids of Fremont don’t have universally great taste: They were also the only neighborhood to elevate Jim Davis’ comic-strip collection, “Garfield at Large,” to their most-loaned list.
Secret Garden Books: 2214 N.W. Market St., Seattle; 206-789-5006; secretgardenbooks.com
Magnolia’s Bookstore: 3206 W. McGraw St., Seattle; 206-283-1062; magnoliasbookstore.com
Book Larder: 4252 Fremont Ave. N., Seattle; 206-397-4271; booklarder.com
Ada’s Technical Books: 425 15th Ave. E., Seattle; 206-322-1058; adasbooks.com
University Book Store: 4326 University Way, Seattle; 206-634-3400; ubookstore.com
Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery: 1201 S. Vale St., Seattle; 206-557-4910; fantagraphics.com
Paper Boat Booksellers: 6040 California Ave., Seattle; 206-743-8283; paperboatbooksellers.com