Tough times for some of Seattle's independent bookstores
Greenwood's Couth Buzzard bookstore is the most recent in a clutch of neighborhood book shops that have gone out of business this year.
Seattle Times book editor
The Couth Buzzard would seem the perfect bookstore for a neighborhood like Greenwood: within walking distance of blocks of family-style bungalows; moms and daughters strolling arm-in-arm down Greenwood Avenue; right next door to Ken's Market, where a leashed dog lounges next to a water bowl provided for local mutts.
In fact, for two decades it was the perfect bookstore for the Greenwood neighborhood, a place customer Lauralee Smith called "a refuge and an oasis." But the Couth Buzzard threw its own goodbye party last weekend, having lost its lease with Ken's, which needs the space to expand, joining a clutch of neighborhood independent bookstores in the Seattle area that have gone out of business this year.
Gone are the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves packed with used and gently worn books, everything from romance novels to antique MS-DOS manuals. Gone is the children's nook where people brought their kids to read on rainy days, and gone is that smell of used books, some blend of decaying paper and must that to the true book addict smells like the scent of roses.
There are no hard feelings on losing the lease: Couth Buzzard owner Gerry Lovchik says Ken's supported the bookstore with below-market rates for many years. When it came time to consider a move, the owners simply could not find an equivalent space — high ceilings for tall bookshelves preferred — that they could afford.
"I like to carry everything," says Lovchik. In his ideal bookstore, "I'd like to have one copy of everything in existence."
Well-read, but high-priced
Seattle has more bookstores per capita than any other city in the country, according to the "America's Most Literate Cities" survey conducted by Jack Miller, president of Central Connecticut State University — 174 at last count. But running a bookstore has always been an occupation for dreamers, and area independent stores have had to confront the realities of wresting a living from a low-margin business in an increasingly expensive town.
M Coy Books, on Pine Street between First and Second avenues in the Pike Place Market neighborhood, could not survive a major rent increase. All for Kids Books in the University Village area, a treasured children's bookstore, closed down this summer. Jackson Street Books at the corner of Jackson Street and 23rd Avenue, specializing in African-American literature, science fiction and other genres, shuttered its Seattle operation this spring. In Kirkland, Parkplace Books resorted to a campaign for donations from its fans and customers to avoid closing its doors.
It's not all gloom and doom — other bookstores, even small ones, are thriving and/or holding their own. Seattle Mystery Bookshop in Pioneer Square is supported by a dedicated core of mystery fans; a growing mail-order/online business; and a felicitous combination of an appreciative landlord, tourists and ferry foot traffic. And then there are the social workers, lawyers, judges and cops from neighboring city and county offices for whom mysteries are a welcome break from some "really intense jobs," says manager J.B. Dickey.
Elliott Bay Book Co., a Pioneer Square institution, just celebrated its 35th anniversary. Elliott Bay, the century-old University Book Store and relative newcomer Third Place Books, with locations in Lake Forest Park and Seattle's Ravenna neighborhood, are a triumvirate of major independent bookstores and the envy of book people all over the country, with a customer base that supports their reading programs and — more important — buys books. But Seattle's high cost of living and rising rents have brought others to the brink of a decision — continue to lose money or close.
Jackson Street Books owner Dan Domike says his location in the Central District never brought in enough foot traffic. But it was an eye-popping property tax bill on his home that finally did the business in, as well as a hip-hop apparel store that moved next door, attracting gangs and wannabes. Customers were intimidated, and Domike's teenaged son, who often staffed the store, was mugged.
A reputation at risk?
The bookstores that have closed had survived the advent of online book retailer Amazon and the incursion of chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders, plus competition from big-box retailers like Costco and Wal-Mart, which sell discounted books cheek by jowl with baby clothes and bath mats. Will Seattle's ever-rising cost of living and doing business eat further into the already low margins of bookselling, putting the city's "literate city" reputation in jeopardy?
Seattle is an exceptional reading town, but national trends are not encouraging — even in cities with highly educated populations like Seattle's. Miller, who runs the "Most Literate Cities" survey, recently reviewed five years of survey results, and found what he called a "disturbing" trend: "While Americans are becoming more and more educated in terms of their time spent in school and their education level accomplished," Miller wrote, "they are decreasing in terms of literate behaviors. This is particularly obvious in our lack of support of bookstores and the constantly diminishing circulation of newspapers."
In his five-year review, Miller noted that 43 out of 59 of the cities studied had a higher percentage of high-school graduates than they did five years ago, and 46 of the cities a higher percentage of college graduates. But "not a single city in our survey has more independent bookstores now than five years ago," Miller writes. "Fifty-seven out of 60 cities reported fewer retail booksellers in 2007 than in 2003; in several, the number of booksellers per capita dropped by half of what was reported in 2003."
Of urgent concern in other national surveys of America's reading habits has been a pronounced decline in reading among young people, and Couth Buzzard manager Theo Dzielak noticed a trend among his customers: They included families with young children, and legions of baby boomers, but a noticeable gap in young-adult shoppers: "We get a lot of moms and dads with their kids; but if someone comes in who's 30 years old, we want to genuflect and thank you for coming in."
A customer's loss, too
Nonetheless, the Buzzard will be seriously missed.
"I've been in such denial about the place closing," says customer Smith, who tried, unsuccessfully, to help the Buzzard find another Greenwood location.
"When I go to a bookstore, I'm looking for more than books," says Smith. "I'm wandering the aisles, connecting with human beings. All the people there are warm and wonderful, and knowledgeable about books." She described the lovely serendipity of finding just the right book for a friend — not a work of philosophy, not a novel, but a book about getting the best fit in a bra, complete with a real hook-and-eye closure on the cover.
Will the number of Seattle bookstores decline? That's hard to predict, because people who love to read, talk about and sell books appear to be very reluctant to abandon the field.
After putting out a call for donations, the owners of Kirkland's Parkplace Book experienced the relief and gratification of having their customers come to the rescue. "It was heartwarming. They wrote checks, or bought hordes of books," says Parkplace co-owner Mary Harris.
Michael Coy, former co-owner of M Coy Books, begins a new job in January as manager of Ravenna Third Place Books. Coy will work the floor as a bookseller this fall and take over management after the first of the year.
Jackson Street's Domike sold his house in Seattle, and for the price he got was able to buy a generously sized house in Hoquiam. He's moving his inventory there and, in about a month, will begin to sell books online at www.jacksonst-books.com.
And at least two new bookstores have opened in the same six-month period that others have closed — Mockingbird Books, a children's bookstore in the Green Lake neighborhood, and Inner Chapters Bookstore and Cafe on Fairview Avenue North in the South Lake Union neighborhood. Inner Chapters had its grand opening on the weekend of Aug. 16 — the same weekend the Couth Buzzard closed.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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