Seattle's Disappearing Bookstores

A recovering used book clerk laments the steady disappearance of a last great place for meandering
Magus Books in the U District—a rare used-books success story

"Do you want any soda with that?” Kris Minta, the owner of Spine and Crown used bookstore on Capitol Hill, asks as he pours three fingers of bourbon into a paper cup. It is a hot June night, and Minta is throwing a going-out-of-business party in the snug Pine Street space he shares with the éminence grise of rare and out-of-print record stores, Wall of Sound. The room is crowded and buzzes with an indie vibe that I thought had been destroyed by suicide, heroin addiction and way too much money. There are about 23 bedraggled beards in the room and tattoos without number; most everyone holds a paper cup or can of Rainier beer. A street magician—emphasis on street—pulls a piece of rope from behind the ear of an uncertain, bespectacled little girl. Sahir, an 18-year-old Spine and Crown regular, asks me what I think about T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. I look at him as though he is from one of the Galilean moons of Jupiter—and he is—a wunderkind dressed in a Vietnam-era army jacket and on his way to Swarthmore in the fall. The street magician drops an F-bomb, his 14th of the night, as he circulates his donation cup. A musician fiddles with his amp, and an artist lays a large cardboard cutout of an insect in the center of the room for the next performance. Half the crowd spills out onto Pine Street for fresh air. Sahir complains that his fellow students at The Northwest School are boring because they only read the writers you would expect them to read, like Michael Chabon. The bourbon burns in my chest, and I think, goddamn it, I’m going to miss this place.

But all things must pass, as George Harrison mournfully observed—and this is especially true for Seattle’s used bookstores, which are shutting down at a steady clip, with more than a few big hits in the past year. And with their demise, we lose more than a place to pick up a $2 copy of The Hunger Games.

Seattle has long been an excellent place for bookstores, both new and used. Consistently voted among the most literate cities in the U.S., it is the home of a vibrant literary culture and has a storied history of independent bookstores. From Seattle Arts & Lectures to the Richard Hugo House, our city has been a place where both writers and readers thrive, and even prosper. Used bookstores, once as common as Dale Chihuly chandeliers, have played an integral part in our ecosystem of the written word and the city’s culture. Part symposium, part nerd refuge, the used bookstore was and is a place to meet other readers, discover books you never knew you wanted to read and—strange as it may sound—experience the sometimes tragic lives of a book’s past.
Buying used books is like buying vintage anything—whether it is scrounging for emerald green Manolo Blahnik pumps at Sell Your Sole or stumbling upon an Eames lounge chair in its original black leather at Area 51—the quest is as important as the purchase. “Looking for books was all about the thrill of the hunt, but that’s gone,” says John Erdmann, a former Seattle used book scout and now a faculty librarian at the College of Marin in northern California. “Now you can find anything you want instantly on online book sites, such as AbeBooks or Alibris. If you’ve been searching for a first edition of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces with a dust jacket in excellent condition, boom, you touch your smartphone, and—if you’re willing to pay [around $37]—the book is on your doorstep the next day.” (Above: Eleanor, a comfortable tenant at Twice Sold Tales on Capitol Hill)

In the last year and a half, the steady disappearance of used bookstores accelerated with at least eight prominent closures—the Book Kennel, Renaissance Books, Inner Chapters, the Capitol Hill Half Price Books, Bookworm Exchange, Once Sold Tales, Balderdash Books and now, thanks to the purchase of the Melrose Building, Minta’s Spine and Crown—with no stores taking their places.
“It has been a slaughter,” says Jamie Lutton, owner of Twice Sold Tales, a 26-year-old bookstore now located on the corner of Harvard Avenue East and Denny Way. Lutton’s shop, a fixture on Capitol Hill since 1987, has seen the rise and fall of many Seattle bookstores. The culprits behind the recent closures are many: theft, rents, the decline in reading, the rise of e-books and the buying and selling of used books online, which leads, of course, to that favorite nemesis of the used bookseller, Amazon.

“People treat used bookstores as exhibit halls for online book-buying,” Lutton says. “[They] come in with their smartphones and check prices online.”

No matter what one thinks of Amazon, it has been wildly effective at wiping out the competition—thanks to its demographic reach and massive used book inventory (via legions of private sellers). With Borders having declared bankruptcy and Barnes & Noble surviving by selling practically everything but books, Amazon is poised for total market domination. And that’s not including the used books of the future, i.e., e-book downloads. Between 2011 and 2012, e-books surpassed printed books in sales (with total mass-market paperback sales falling by 20.5 percent), and Amazon now squats on around three-quarters of the e-book market. All of which has a profound effect on the used books industry. “You are witnessing the death of probably 80 percent of all bookstores in this country,” says Twice Sold Tales’ Lutton.