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Originally published Sunday, July 6, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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Phinney Books: a new literary anchor for Greenwood

New owner Tom Nissley of Phinney Books on Greenwood Avenue North wants to help his customers find the book they’re looking for, the book they didn’t even know they wanted and the best book they’ve never read.

Seattle Times book editor


Lit Life

It would be easy to plop the 7400 block of Greenwood Avenue North into a “Portlandia” set and have some fun with it. Well-groomed kids and dogs, their lithe yoga- and Pilates-toned parents bobbing in their wake as they queue up for treats at the “microcreamery.” The corner coffee emporium where customers nurse their lattes at 10 a.m. on a Thursday morning, their faces alight in the glow of their sleek and expensive laptops (don’t these people have to work?).

But there is continuity here. The ale house. The hardware store. And now, the successor to Santoro’s Books, which operated for nine years on the same stretch of Greenwood Avenue. Owners Tom Nissley and wife Laura Silverstein are the newest shop owners in a booming neighborhood.

Nissley bought the store from longtime owner-proprietor Carol Santoro. If he looks familiar, it might be because of his winning streak as a champion on the “Jeopardy!” quiz show; the prize money (OK, $235,000) enabled him to quit his job in Amazon’s book division, write a book and then buy a bookstore.

Really? Why would a guy who worked for Amazon, the 800-pound gorilla in the book business and blamed for the demise for many bookselling operations, buy a bookstore?

Admittedly, Nissley, 47, is an unusual case. He did work for Amazon for 10 years, but before that he got his doctorate in English literature. He is a published author — he was interviewed for this column in December about his delightful almanac of all things literary, “A Reader’s Book of Days.”

When Nissley was a doctoral student at the UW, he visited Capitol Hill’s late and lamented Bailey-Coy bookstore almost every day. When he worked at Amazon, he dropped by the Elliott Bay Book Co. once a week.

He was the kind of bookstore customer who didn’t want to be noticed. “I wouldn’t talk to anyone at Elliott Bay and Bailey Coy,” he remembers, though he eventually became friends with the staffs at both. He understands people who come in and don’t make eye contact. They want to be alone with their thoughts, and with the books.

Other customers want advice. “People will say, ‘I want a happy book. I don’t want to be put through the ringer. I just read a book like that.’ ” (Note to readers: If you need a happy book, Nissley suggests Tove Jansson’s “The Summer Book.”)

Many requests for assistance are for kids’ books. People say, “We knew what she liked when she was 10. But now she’s 13 ...”

Nissley has his own passions that he will try to nudge folks toward. Nonfiction — “ ‘The Making of the Atomic Bomb’ by Richard Rhodes. Nobody’s going to top that anytime soon,” he says. Collections of letters or diaries, a genre he drew heavily on for “A Reader’s Book of Days.” Books about cities and what makes them work. He’s the curator, thinking hard about what he thinks his readers will like.

Companies like Amazon spend a lot of time trying to automate this process. If you’ve got an Amazon account, you are familiar with the “customers who bought this also bought” feature. But how do you account for a person’s mood on a particular day? How do you find the book that will tell them something they didn’t know they wanted to know?

“I was a big indie bookstore customer even when I worked at Amazon,” Nissley says. “There is something irreplaceable about walking into a bookstore and browsing through well-chosen shelves and talking to a bookseller....Amazon’s algorithms are pretty impressive and useful, but they still can’t do everything a smart and imaginative bookseller can do, especially one that knows you and the books you like to read.”

The Phinney Ridge neighborhood is affluent. According to Zillow, the average price of a neighborhood house is $589,200, up 13 percent in the last year. You can bet there are some Amazon Prime customers strolling Greenwood Avenue North.

But Phinney Books was jammed with well-wishers on opening day, June 21. Nissley and his family spent the next day restocking the shelves. What were they looking for? Maybe a nod, maybe a little pool of quiet. Maybe help in finding their next best book.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW's "Well Read," discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma

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