Message in a Bottle
Making the News



Journalism (excepting that branch of it that involves reporting from war zones while ducking sniper fire) doesn’t appear to be especially difficult. Most of the time it seems fairly straightforward, but it’s actually a tricky business. Even if you’ve figured out which questions to ask which people to find out what you want to know, you have to assemble the answers like puzzle pieces. You can tell how hard it is to make the picture come out right when you read an article about a subject you know well. That’s what happened last week when little old Island Books popped up in the New York Times.

We saw a noticeable spike in traffic on our website and blog after the story first ran (above the fold on the NYT home page, no less). Roger likes to make fun of my extremely esoteric essayistic excursions into experimentalism, but he said he was grateful I’d gone highbrow that weekend. It sounds apocryphal to me, but he swears at least a half-dozen bearded, tweedy professor types strolled in looking for the obscure Italian books I’d just covered. For a change, he was proud that we’d showed off our intellectual bona fides to those snobby east coast elites who read the Times. He’s secretly one of those, of course.

All in all, it was a great piece that brought deserved attention to a number of positive developments in the local book scene. The general point was that indie retailers are thriving, and the central evidence was what’s happening over in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle, where former Amazon editor (and current friend of Island Books) Tom Nissley is taking the reins from longtime bookseller Carol Santoro, who’s retiring next month. “Tech Exec Reinvents Self, Reinvigorates Phinney-Area Retail,” in other words. True enough, and news worth sharing. Somehow, though, this information, along with passing remarks from an Elliott Bay Book Company manager and our own Roger Page, was spun into a suggestion that Amazon itself is aiding the indie resurgence. Huh? The reporter correctly identified all the trees, but missed the forest entirely.

Yes, it’s true that some Amazon employees shop with us and with other small businesses, and we appreciate them for their support as we do all of our beloved customers. But frankly, best estimates indicate that Amazon employs about 15,000 people in a metropolitan area with a population north of 3.5 million. Even considering that Amazon workers may be more bookish than average, the numbers don’t add up to more than a drop in the bucket. The idea that Amazon is helping “bolster” our coffers in any significant way is ludicrous even before you factor in all the negative effects of their practices. However tempted I might be, I won’t go into detail about those. As an ex-Amazonian myself, I can get pretty exercised on the subject, unlike my boss, who’s quite evenhanded when he discusses it. I was surprised to see the Times reporter incorrectly refer to the way Roger “fulminated,” but with all the cutbacks newspapers have to deal with these days, maybe I shouldn’t have been. They might not be as concerned about misusing words as we are on our blog.

At least one media outlet gets it. Just this morning NPR broadcast a piece about how mom-and-pop shops are successfully competing against the big-box behemoths. They do it the way we do, by providing things the big guys can’t: “Local flavor,” “wisdom,” a staff that’s “knowledgeable … passionate,” service that’s “personalized.” It sounds like marketing talk, but it’s really just what you get when you do something you love for the benefit of the human beings in your own community. The best books and the best people on both sides of the counter—that’s the real bottom line.



Photo credits: Sage old bookseller by Yelp contributor Edy K., energetic new bookseller by Matthew Ryan Williams for the New York Times

Stitching a Community Together

At the outset of this series of little essays about the store I said I how I didn’t feel like the owner. Not responsible for its birth, its evolution, or even its ongoing vitality. There have been a handful of owners, a bushel basket of employees, and thousands of generous, thoughtful patrons who have gone out of there way to help.

And we have needed all that help to get this far. The quiet business of running a bookshop has been an exceptionally dynamic affair the last 30 years with the arrival of big box stores, personal computers, internet shopping, and e-readers. On top of that there are the usual vagaries of small business with leaky roofs, landlord hassles, changing terms and technology, narrowing margins. There were a half-dozen moments when I thought the end was near (it wasn’t but you do worry) or moments when I really didn’t feel I had the energy for another challenge. Each time the island folks have come to our aid. Each time they have made the store stronger and more supported.

A couple of mementos of these supportive gestures are on display in the store although the stories behind them may be less well known. The first has to do with the carpet. About twenty years ago I spent a couple evenings with a young moonlighting carpet layer and we installed new carpet throughout the store. I was younger then but it was still a huge project for two guys and we sweated and strained late into the early mornings. I swore the next time Island Books needed carpet I’d be gone. As the years passed, the evening book fair ladies would spill their wine, and we would buy Oriental rugs to cover the stains and duct tape to patch the fraying seams. Finally our landlord put down her foot and said if we wanted to renew the lease we had to do something. Faced with this prospect, I thought briefly of heading out the door, but then floated a plea out into the community and it was heard. Over three nights in the summer of 2012 many hands lifted bookshelves, tables and card racks, and magically the store was resurfaced. The team was made up of young and old, capable and willing, fast and fun. Everyone who helped signed the beam in the office. We look at it gratefully everyday.


A more difficult and less happy episode in the bookstore past resulted in an even finer memento of community support. It’s a long, complicated story which I will only outline here, but about eight years ago a young Amazon executive decided to beta test a shopping rewards program here on his home island. The idea was to get the parents at all the schools to do their shopping through a special Mercer Island Schools Foundation portal and then Amazon would give back a small percentage to the foundation. This was not a new idea, and in fact, Island Books had already raised over $200,000 for local schools by doing special book fair evenings over the years. But to advertise this concept, the foundation hung big banners outside every school saying something like “Shop” This happened right when we were doing our evenings for the schools and I felt spurned, conflicted, worried, and dismal. Parents are the beating heart of our store and they drove by those banners every day. I don’t know exactly what happened, but there was a quiet, powerful groundswell of support for our store and the banners and the program went away that winter, while we went on to business as usual.


Sometime in the early spring, a wonderful longtime customer who would prefer to remain nameless brought us a gift that left us speechless. It’s a quilt that hangs behind the children’s counter. It bears the boldly stitched slogan “Read Globally, Buy Locally,” and shows books with amusing titles surrounding an image of Island Books. It is a superb piece of fabric art which had to take many, many hours and it was a lovely gesture of  affection. We could never thank her enough for this surprising act of generosity. We look at it each day as a reminder of the community that we serve and that stands around us.


Signs and Wonders


Occasionally we get customers who leave home, go to college, spend a couple decades working elsewhere, and return to Island Books saying, “It looks just the same as did when I was a kid.” This is a little like the high school reunion phenomenon in which you and your pals have all aged 40 years but you can’t quite see it or you’d rather squint and just see the past. The bookstore has changed, many times and in many ways. Sure, we have tried to preserve the cedar shelves, the playhouse, warm atmosphere, and strong selection, but 1974 is a long ways back and the store has always been one to change with the times.

A snapshot of the history can be seen in the store signage. The first store sign was a lovely hand-carved, painted cedar sign designed probably by Andrea Lorig who was responsible for so much of the store’s early art and ads. The dark wood and image of a book as an island suited the feeling on downtown Mercer Island at the time. It was a woodsy country place. There were some big trees downtown, many shops were small wood frame houses, and across the street there was a big vacant lot with raccoons. We sold macrame, stained glass, and candles. Hair was long and swoopy.


Three years later, Lola Deane opened up the expansive “Children’s Books Etc.” addition. It was advertised as the largest children’s bookstore in Puget Sound. (Oddly after many years we may have returned to that perch, at least in terms of titles). A new sign was created with a charming bookworm and the store operated under dual personalities for at least a decade. Fam Bayless was the co-owner and kids’ book buyer then, ably assisted by a much loved bookseller, Meb Paxson. Teachers and parents made the trek from far and wide to shop from our huge wall of picture books.

Sometime in the late eighties, I worried that these lovely signs (pieces of art really) were too small, and I had an objection to the book-in-water image, so I constructed a new and rather plain sign in my garage and rehung the old signs in the store where they are today. I am not particularly proud of this sign (or any of my carpentry) but you can see it when you’re driving down 78th and it has only blown down once.


As we fooled around looking for a replacement logo we often made new bookmarks with images and quotes to match the seasons. One time I found a very old woodcut from England of two men in a boat and used it to advertise our new service of “Free shipping.” For some reason (which defies logic) this image took and has become our advertising icon. A fellow bookseller and beloved art teacher, Poo Putsch, painted a sidewalk sign for us with this image broadcasting our Sunday hours. It was a heavy old sign and we got tired of hauling it out after ten years and retired it to my garage. Poo also painted the murals in the playhouse and the signs for “Picture Books” and “Old Favorites” in the kids section. Check them out. They are wonderful and easy to overlook.


Lastly, perhaps my personal favorite sign was made a couple years ago by a talented, under-occupied, retired investment adviser/gadfly who humbly refers to himself as “Mayor Jim.” Jim has limitless creative energy and sometimes I just have to give him something to do so I can get back to work. I was brainstorming with him one day and I told him how I mourned the passing of a famous New York bookstore, the Gotham Book Mart. It had a somewhat similar sign with an image of men in a boat accompanied by the slogan “Wise Men Fish Here.” It was cut out of copper and hung on a side street in the diamond district of Manhattan for 70 years. Jim went off with his gears engaged and came back with this gorgeous sign. The revived slogan combined with our image makes me feel that at 40 we are becoming a part of an older tradition of bookstore places in the country. And that, perhaps, we are keeping something important alive …


The Wrapping Table


My first job at Island Books in 1984 was as a “Holiday Gift Wrapper.” I was the the junior member of the staff by twenty years or so and my bosses and co-workers had very particular feelings about bows and tape and felt duty bound to instruct me. It seems like all I did that fall was receive instruction … sometimes conflicting instruction depending on whether it was Lissa, Elinor, Stacey, Marge, Fam, or Sally at my elbow that day.

I like to think I became at least a fast gift wrapper that fall. The skills I learned have given me a certain job security and are in use every day here at the store. The wrapping table where I and everyone who works here practice our “art” has an interesting origin. The store was started by Lola Deane with some assistance from her husband Phil. Phil was, I think, the first pediatrician on the island and Lola was a nurse. They had (and Lola still has) a long life of service here and overseas, and Island Books was just a train stop for them. But they got an awful lot done in a short amount of time. The way I heard the story was that Lolaa smart reader and book lovercomplained one day about the lack of a bookstore on the island and five months later she had the shelves up and full and the doors open. The initial design of the store was by a local architect but Phil made the shelves and tables himself in his garage. They were built well and still stand although we have remodeled dozens of times.

It seems that right before the opening Lola commandeered a pediatric examination table that was used in their home emergency medical office. In those early days if your child got an earache at 2:00 am you called Phil Deane and took your child to the house for relief and guidance. Phil would wrestle your bawling little one onto his big sanitary white table and see to the problem. I think of those kicking little legs every Christmastime when the ribbon becomes unruly and we are going at the wrapping hammer and tongs.

imageWhen Lola was ready to move on to new challenges (something she did often and well) she invited three of her friends for a sail in Lake Washington. When they were a good ways off shore she told them they were going to buy the bookstore (or swim?) and that was the beginning of a happy chapter two of Island Books.

Eventually Phil and Lola moved to Shaw Island and  had a another career in retirement as overseas medical missionaries. Phil got sick a few years ago and sadly passed away but before he did he drove around in an old station wagon with some of his Shaw Island watercolor paintings to sell to old remembered friends. We were fortunate to get one and it hangs next to his old examination table today.




At any one time there are usually 50 old typewriters on display at Island Books. It always amazes us when a customer who has been shopping at the store for years looks up and asks, “How long have those typewriters been up there?” The answer is a little over twenty years. The next question is, “Do you collect them?”

Surprisingly, the answer is, “No, not really.” The story of how the typewriters got here goes something like this: When I was in my teens and twenties I studied poetry and wrote on my mother’s WW2 Royal. I was trying very hard to be bohemian and over time collected about five typewriters including one red one that is still in the store. My now-wife refused to go out with me the first time I asked for a date but (honest!) when I told her she could see my typewriter collection she gave in and the rest is history. After we had been married for a while and after I stopped writing poetry I decided to get rid of the old heavy beasts and put two of them up on a bookcase in the bookstore. After that customers would come into the store and offer us old typewriters that they were clearing out of the basement. We would add them to what became our “orphanage.” Now we are full but occasionally one or two come in and one or two go out (usually gifts to young bohemians).

Last year we had some real fun with a Type-A-Thon which you can read about here. At  the holidays we put lights on them and make the “electric” typewriters. Mostly we love to have them because of all the stories and memories that they played a part in. One typewriter has a baseball novel written on it, a couple are WW1 foreign correspondent typewriters, one sat in a family general store in Minnesota for decades, one accompanied an young girl as she immigrated to the West. Some are a hundred years old.

Parents often stop with their children, point out the typewriters, and sagely ask, “Do you know what those are, Johnny?” But my favorite moment was the seven-year-old walking through the store with his dad, who stopped and said, “Hey, dad, do you know about those things? They print as soon as you hit the key! You don’t have to wait for a printer.”

And so it goes…


The Smallest Room in the Shop


The store has often served as a refuge of sorts for local folks. Dozens and dozens of customers who were struggling through bad days or grave illnesses have used the store as a place to quietly spend time and find distraction from their troubles. Newcomers, unanchored in their new home, also seem to seek out the bookstore. Island Books always seems to be a good place to ask directions, make a first friend, feel a little bit at home. One day 15 years ago, a young woman named Jamie Austad stopped into the store and said she was an artist looking for work.

She was escaping her Dakota small town roots and had arrived on Mercer Island and was staying in someone’s basement. There was something appealing about this twenty-year-old stray looking for a home, something that I wanted to shelter and support.

She said she painted murals and we walked around until we got to the bathroom and I impulsively suggested she paint it. She said yes, and came back the next day and shut the door and spent two days in there painting. We had no idea what to expect but when it was revealed there was a delightful underwater northwest seal and orca scene adorning the walls. 

From that point on Jamie was a “friend of the store” for a few years and she helped in a variety of ways doing odd jobs, babysitting my kids, painting Harry Potter props. Sometime later when money was tight she painted another mural on the wall and the top of the ramp. Eventually she drifted away to Whidbey Island and we now only see or hear from her rarely.

We miss her.

A postscript: Another local artist, a wonderful wild woman, Chris Conklin-Ray who has many informal ties to the store was working one night at the store with her husband, Tom. They were helping me with one of my crazy all night carpentry projects. At some point Chris drifted off for an hour and came back and said she had made an addition to our bathroom. The great Portuguese man o’war jellyfish is hers.


The Front Door

imageThe editors (Miriam and James) suggested that I use objects or fixtures in the store as a jumping off point for some stories. Sort of a History of Island Books in Twenty Objects. Seems ambitious and beyond my capabilities, so I welcome guest appearances. But in the meantime, I will begin with a short chapter on the front door.

You may notice that Island Books has a unique, heavy, glass front door with a large cast iron (cold!) antique door handle. I don’t know exactly how that came to be, but it is original to the store. I know this because it is written into all the leases that the store has ever had that the landlord is responsible for everything on the outside of the building except for the front door. For thirty years or so, our landlord was Gladys Alsin, who had her home and orchard where Island Books now sits and built the center back in the sixties. Gladys lived to be over a hundred and she was a sharp, tough, and sweet operator. I remember her in her nineties, scraping paint drips off the windows and directing a forlorn landscaper on how to spread bark. No one pulled the wool over her eyes. She thought that if the bookstore wants to put in a ridiculous and heavy custom door, then they are going have to live with it and take care of it.

imageIt hasn’t been all that easy. To begin with there are the bratty kids. Once a week or so, some charming little tyke comes along and discovers that this door handle can make a really loud noise. So he stands outside the store, beating the cast iron knocker on the steel plate until we all cry uncle and hand him a lollipop or bookmark. Once a week for forty years. It leaves a mark.

Then there is the challenge of keeping an eye out for the approach of the old and infirm. The door is not remotely ADA compliant. In fact, we have seen a few small or frail customers launch into the parking lot by opening the huge door when a stiff southerly wind is blowing. The wind catches it and out they fly. Because there is no handle on the inside, some people turn the deadbolt accidentally upon leaving. If left out, the next person will bang the door on the deadbolt when closing it. If this happens repeatedly, as it did one Christmas Eve at 4pm in the 1990s, the deadbolt will break and there is no way to lock the door. I just nailed the door shut with some great big nails that night (the hardware store was closed) and went home to my roast beef.

But the real drama happened on a sunny afternoon in August about twenty years ago. A mother and a teenage son were out running errands and practicing driving on the Island. They had concluded their business at Island Books, and the “learner” put the car into drive instead of reverse just outside our front door. The shock of jumping the curb and coming through our front door was such that the kid froze with his foot on the pedal for a good ten seconds.

The whole building shook and I thought the ceiling was going to collapse. No one was hurt. But when we talked to the insurance, they said we needed to look at the lease. And when we looked at the lease, well…we paid a fair sum to rebuild that silly door. So let’s just say we are invested in it now. Hope you like it.




Recently some members of the industry press were abuzz and atwitter about the fact that Amazon asked some booksellers, including me, whether they could sell Kindles in independent bookstores. I guess this constitutes news, but it is no big deal to me. (We politely said no.) It does make me think about my mixed feelings about Amazon. Some people might be surprised to hear the adjective “mixed” being used. But I have a number of good things to say about the company.

The Good: They are building their headquarters right in the middle of Seattle. I think this is mostly a fantastic shot in the arm for the Seattle community and very exciting to watch. They employ and give a good wage to many families on Mercer Island, many of whom shop at our store. They are an impressively strategic company, forward thinking and creative. I have relatives who work there. I have two terrific employees that used to work for them. They are brilliant designers of customer-centric web services. You can find little tiny parts to things that break easily. And weird shoe sizes.

The Bad: It seems that they are unusually predatory and all about winning market share at any cost. They seem to be after everyone and everything. They seem relatively uninterested in supporting non-profits and the local community. They have made it very hard for small-town brick-and-mortar stores of all kinds. This does real damage to our way of life and the fabric of our communities. I don’t believe they care very much about books, just eyeballs and shopping carts. I believe there is a real chance that they will ruin the publishing world. Their offices and facilities seem to be incredibly competitive and not very supportive places to work … not sure this is healthy for the young.

So I guess in sum, it is just life. Life and the cost of big capitalism. If I could control everything it would be different. But I am just trying to run a little bookstore and serve the nice folks who come in our door. That and keep our garden weeded.


P.S. Regarding big companies and small folks: My favorite image is of Edith Macefield’s house in Ballard. She is the lady who wouldn’t sell her house when she was offerred a million dollars. The big building was built around her. Later people in Ballard started sporting tattoos with her house and the word “steadfast.” It’s the only tattoo I have ever considered ….


For Those Who Missed It: Jonathan Evison at Island Books

imageimageOn Tuesday, May 7th, author Jonathan Evison paid a call on Island Books to celebrate the paperback publication of his novel The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. It tells the story of Benjamin, on whom Fortune hasn’t smiled of late. He’s down to his last dollar when forced to take a job as a caregiver for Trevor, a nineteen-year-old kid confined to a wheelchair. The friendship that unexpectedly—and sometimes painfully—grows inspires an audacious sense of healing and forgiveness.

This was the third in our series of author talks presented in conjunction with the Mercer Island Arts Council (the first two events featured Maria Semple, author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette and Tara Conklin, author of The House Girl). Three terrific, award-winning authors, all speaking right here in downtown Mercer Island. We’ll continue to host authors next fall and really hope to share these remarkable events with more people. Hint, hint.

This was a Big Deal, and we were nervous beforehand. To prepare, we read Evison’s posted author bio and learned he liked beer. Really liked beer. But not IPAs. Cue the panic beer run ten minutes before signing. He was the first author we’ve had who pretty much went through a six-pack of Coronas while making his amazing talk. He was in no hurry and stayed late having long and generous conversations with the audience. There was great discussion of Dickens and Shakespeare, and a great love expressed for the small people of life, à la Steinbeck and Twain. The novels of all those writers show how life acts upon regular people and how they experience it. As Evison puts it, he wants to “experience as many other lives as he can” through his deeply empathic writing. We also enjoyed great discussion on the importance of audience, not in the marketing sense but in the way the ultimate meaning of a novel arises out of the reader’s experience.

I don’t know that we have ever seen an author as deeply dedicated to the novel and to the experience of writing as Jonathan Evison. Though on the surface he is a very funny and profane storyteller, that’s not all he is. As one knowledgeable customer said, “he’s the real deal.” He’s certainly a guy going through life at a full gallop. Again, read the bio—“M for manic.” It was a very impressive evening.


Buckskin and Books, Story and Light

This is my mother’s coat. She wore it for more than five decades walking in the woods on damp fall days in Vermont.

Both my parents grew up during the Depression and as so many others of that era they held thrift up as the ultimate virtue. You wore clothes until they wore out. This coat is buckskin so it may never wear out and now belongs to her granddaughter, my daughter Emma.

But for my parents, books and education were not something to scrimp on. In the pre-screen days they believed there was nothing more illuminating. Wear the old coat, buy the new book. Give the gift of story and light.


Type-A-Thon Roundup


In honor of our anniversary we “mobilized” our typewriters for a “Type-A-Thon” (Look out Amazon!). Cindy oiled and dusted a half dozen machines from the collection and we set up a couple of typing pools in the store and opened the doors last Thursday.


The whole event almost came to a screeching halt when the first customer saw the blackboard announcement and grumbled “only on Mercer Island!” Apparently he misread the sign to be a “Type A”-thon and thought that genetics and drinking the local water ought to be enough to assure that our children grow up to be leaders and that we didn’t need to have some sort of championship at the bookstore. We straightened him out and then invited him and the public to bang out their thoughts and frustrations on the old black keys.


The public was shy at first but a few ringers showed up and got the place tapping. We had poets, grateful customers, parents teaching children about the shift key, long discussions about the merits of “magic margins,” former secretaries, current writers. Two quotes from the sheaves of onion skin:

"Another memory is receiving typed letters from my grandmother who liked to type in carbon so she could send the same letter to all of the grandchildren at once. It was a bummer to receive the last of the four copies because the type was rather faint."

"Dear Island Books, Thank you for letting me use the typewriters. It was really fun. I really enjoyed it. My mom put this day on the calendar a long time ago, and we have been counting down the days. I loved it. Typewriters are a lot different than computers. You can’t save anything on the desktop unless it was your literal desktop."

And finally, hats off (again!!!) to Terry Pottmeyer for the wonderful inspiring postcard with the trivia, instructive challenges, and fantastic watercolors. Did you know that “stewardesses” is the longest word typed solely with the left hand? Even better, “lollipop” is the right hand longest word. Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party….


More photos available on our Facebook page.

Tom Sawyer, His Fence, and Moving the Bookstore

I am discouraged by the state of literacy amongst the youth of this island. Shocked, actually. When I was young we walked barefoot down country roads to the town library  where the friendly librarian offered up and we hungrily devoured the classics. Peter Rabbit, Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Wind in the Willows, Mark Twain, Midsummer’s Night Dream. We learned of the wider world and how it works through reading. Life lessons.

For example: You learn that when a boy from Mississippi hands you a paintbrush and says how much fun it is to paint a fence you might want to consider the offer carefully. Basic stuff. Thus I was shocked when I told everyone how much fun it would be to move five tons of shelves and books so I could get our store re-carpeted and no one blinked an eye. Have these people never read about Tom Sawyer or Br’er Rabbit? Well, I am grateful the carpet job is behind us and I know I had fun, but I’m less sure about my hard-working, early-rising “volunteers.” To make amends and to further the education of islanders young and old, I will make all Mark Twain books half price for the month of July. The world is full of flimflam men and some of them might even take the guise of a kindly old bookseller…

With true gratitude and affection for you all,


Don’t Miss Author Jim Lynch Tonight (Wed, May 16th) at 7:00pm

Truth Like the SunMaybe you’re looking for a reason to pay Island Books a visit. If so, Jim Lynch’s appearance on Wed, May 16th, gives you an awfully good excuse. He’s touring in support of his new novel, Truth Like the Sun, which paints a dual portrait of Seattle, showing it as it was in the 1960s and as it is in our current century. Lynch is a Mercer Island product and a gem among Northwest writers, and this latest book may be his finest yet. The event is free, and seating is available on a first-come, first-served basis. We hope to see you there!


National Poetry Month Special: Roger’s Roots

Roger's dadPerhaps unexpectedly, poetry has been a pillar of my life. Perhaps even more unexpectedly I trace it back to my father.

My dad (who would be ninety-five if he were alive) was a good man and a caring father, but there was nothing touchy-feely or poetic about him. He was a wrestler in college, and he emerged with a pug nose and a slightly cauliflower ear, and a short, stout, strong body. He had hard hands, loved chopping wood and working outside. He loved his tools and knew how to fix everything. He made me my first skis. He took us hiking, canoeing, and sailing. He was a cheap, tough, self-sufficient man who never whined or talked much about his feelings even through his long final bout of cancer. He was also quite deaf for most of his life so usually conversations were a bit hit and miss and sometimes he just found it easier to go sand the bottom of his boat or fix a chair than follow all the teenage chatter.

Roger and his dadThat’s why it was always so strange when standing around a burning brush pile in the snow he would suddenly spout out something from Sir Walter Raleigh, or Longfellow, or Shakespeare. Some teacher must have gotten to him in elementary school and somehow planted poems in the deep recesses of his mind. They would spill out like pennies and quarters and we kids would stand as stunned as if my dad had actually dropped money on the ground. He’d smile, a little proud, a little embarrassed and then go on as if nothing had happened.

The poetry that we all participated in growing up happened at Christmas. Mostly because we were cheap (but also a little twisted), gifts were not the central focus of Christmas for us. Christmas was about “sentiments.” These were long, ridiculous, witty, cutting, pieces of doggerel that were written on yellow legal pads and taped to presents that were meant to somehow convey what you thought of your siblings’ and parents’ evolving personalities over the past year. These were performance pieces, and the more tortured the rhyme the better you stood in this early family rendition of the poetry slam.

Roger: the young poetWhen I went off to college I had taken on poetry in the serious way that only a college student can. I sat in coffee shops with Ezra Pound’s Cantos, minored in writing poetry, had classes with famous poets. I sat in their living rooms discussing the finer points, published in literary reviews, and wore shabby clothes.

By graduate school I burned outtoo much focus on myself, too much pressure to publish, even for a dreamy youth in the hippie days. For the next fifteen years I focused on working as a teacher, and poetry mostly hibernated…like a sport you once were good at in high school. Warm memories, but I wasn’t going back.

When I came to Island Books, something stirred when I was shelving in the poetry section, handling the old familiar volumes. I began to think I wanted poetry back in my life. So one day I came up with the idea of a Poetry Potluck. This would be a monthly gathering of enthusiasts who would each bring three poems by poets they liked to an evening meeting with plenty of wine and cheese. As with a potluck, all poems would be received with gratitude and appreciation and shared with whomever showed up that night.

Poetry Potluck

I asked a few likely prospects to come, and almost twenty years later we are still meeting. It turned out to be an extraordinary group of poets, characters, readers, and friends. One woman now in her nineties helped found Hugo House, studied with Roethke, and knew or heard just about every important poet in the Northwest in the last fifty years. Another woman reads us poems in Chinese, old Italian, Polish (you should hear her Symborska!) and it seems any other language that comes along. An old gent quotes from ee cummings lectures he went to in the forties, and shows up with a poem from an old New Yorker magazine (ca. 1962) that was “just lying around the house.” There’s a psychiatrist who makes us cry with the sensual, intimate poems he brings, and then there’s the Ogden Nash fans who recite until we roar with laughter. A few of us bring old casseroles (Frost, Dickinson, Blake, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver) and others bring the latest poems from far and wide. There is no judging here. Just wine, talk of family and friends, poems, and sharing. Almost twenty years of sharing.

This group is quite a private group at this point but if I could speak for them, I feel sure they would suggest that the most important thing about poetry is not to get it right. It’s to look for it, give it air, and spread it around. Generously.


Don’t forget that in celebration of National Poetry Month, we’re running a poetry contest open to all ages. The contest ends April 30th, so enter soon.

Journal-Making Workshop on Sunday, Feb. 5

The kindred spirits of Washington’s own Watermark Bindery are our all-time favorite makers of blank books for all purposes. Their handmade papers are bound with love and care between unique and gorgeous covers, and they’ve been producing these one-of-a-kind books since 1973, the same year our store was founded. Whether you’re looking to jot a few notes or create an heirloom album, you won’t find anything else that can meet Watermark’s beauty or quality.

The good folks of Watermark are making a special trip from their island just off Port Townsend to visit us on Sunday, February 5th. They’ll show us how their books are made, and maybe even give us a chance to try the techniques ourselves. They’ll also be bringing some custom personalized notebooks made exclusively for Island Books, and these, like all our journals, will be discounted 20% until Valentine’s Day. We can’t think of a more perfect gift for your loved one (and it’s OK to be selfish and get your own, too).

You’re invited to partake of some food and wine on us while you attend what’s sure to be a fascinating event. All the details about it are on our events calendar and we can give you directions in case you’ve forgotten how to get here. I should mention that things start at 3:00pm. I hear there’s some kind of football game going on then, but this’ll be way better. Don’t miss it.


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