Message in a Bottle
Bookstore Books

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You’ve noticed, I’m sure, how something can be ignored for years and then suddenly become a media darling. Hardly anyone gave a thought to zombies since the B-movies of the 1950s, for example, and then they started shuffling into magazines and onto TV shows, first as single spies and then in stinking, decaying battalions. For whatever reason, they were having a moment.

In that respect, bookstores are like zombies. We’re brainier, more vital, and better-smelling, of course, but we’ve also become the focus of increased attention. As we all hurtle into a confusing future that comes faster every minute, shops like ours have become a symbol of sorts. Traditional, authentic, and operating on a human scale, but also engaged with the life of the mind and therefore open to novelty, freshness, and innovation—no wonder everyone is talking about us.

imageimageThe charm of the independent bookshop has been described dozens, if not hundreds, of times over the years (the platonically romantic 84, Charing Cross Road is an ur-text) but the current fashion may have begun with the publication of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore in 2012. We’ve written previously about the pleasing blend of high-tech caper and paean to print that author Robin Sloan produced, should you want to take a spin through our archives. Other recent books on the topic include Laurence Cossé’s A Novel Bookstore, about a Parisian shop that stocks only masterpieces, and Deborah Meyler’s The Bookstore, which features an engaging cast of clerks who rally to support a young pregnant woman in Manhattan. More offbeat and serious stories have come from overseas of late, such as Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s Severina out of Guatemala, about a haunting book thief, and Tahar Djaout’s The Last Summer of Reason from Algeria, in which a steadfast bookseller resists theocratic vigilantes out to suppress art and human expression.

I’d been thinking for a while that it would be a good idea to write about these and other titles, but those thoughts, like so many of mine, stayed idle and vague. Until another new book arrived, that is. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin hit the shelves this week and immediately became the poster child for everything I’ve been discussing. “No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World” is the perfect motto of the bookshop at the heart of this ingratiating new novel. I’d tell you more about it, but there are at least two people better equipped than me to do so.

The first is Gabrielle Zevin herself, who’s going to be here at Island Books at 10 a.m. on Monday, April 7th. She’s on a whirlwind tour, so this will be a quick meet-and-greet; come early if you want to say hello and take home an autographed copy. The second is our own Emma Page, who is the ideal audience and mouthpiece for The Storied Life, as you’ll see below.

—James

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imageIt was a bitter Massachusetts day in early March when I was handed a copy of Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry and noticed that it has a very personal connection. The title character is a widower and the owner of a small independent bookstore called … Island Books. He is also a man with very particular tastes. Early in the novel this prematurely curmudgeonly bookseller grumpily informs a young publisher’s rep that he does not like “postmodernism, post-apocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magical realism … literary fantasy … children’s books … debuts … poetry, or translations.” As a fan of all of those things, I wasn’t sure that A.J. and I were going to get along very well. To make matters worse, The Storied Life makes heavy use of one of my own literary pet peeves. I usually can’t stand books about books. As a bookseller and a college student studying literature, I’m always wary of becoming one-sided. Usually I want what I read to broaden my horizons, rather than just feeding me comfortable images of other bibliophiles doing what we do best.

Normally, then, I wouldn’t have even picked up Zevin’s book, which has more than just a nod or two to the reading public. But I was already pining for Seattle, so despite few indications that this was going to be my kind of story I snagged a copy for purely sentimental reasons. After devouring the entirety of Storied Life on a plane ride home from Boston I was feeling conflicted. Yes, pandering, but oh how lovely to be pandered to so effectively. I felt as though someone had opened a window into my life, changed a few names and important details and written it all up as a sweet, quirky love story. When a mysterious package abandoned in the store turns out to be a baby girl named Maya, Fikry decides he’d rather take on the challenge of raising the child than see her disappear into the foster system. Later, she ponders her unusual childhood:

Maya knows that her mother left her in Island Books. But maybe that’s what happens to all children at a certain age. Some children are left in shoe stores. And some children are left in toy stores. And some children are left in sandwich shops. And your whole life is determined by what store you get left in.

I wasn’t abandoned on the doorstep of Island Books, but know just what Maya means. Zevin tells us that “The store is fifteen Mayas wide and twenty Mayas long. She knows this because she once spent an afternoon measuring it by lying her body across the room.” I’ve never measured Island Books, but I can date my memories by how much I had to duck to enter the playhouse in Children’s, or how high the counter looked as I peered up at my parents. I know exactly how long it takes me to walk from the front counter wrapping station to Garry’s shipping desk in back on a crowded December day, and which letters of the alphabet I’ll need a step stool to shelve in Young Adult. Zevin writes that “the place Maya loves most is downstairs because downstairs is the store, and the store is the best place in the world.” I didn’t grow up above Island Books, or even on Mercer Island, but that sentence speaks to me as much as anything I’ve ever read. I’ve always known that The Bookstore is the best place in the world, and Gabrielle Zevin has confirmed that I’m not the only one who feels that way. Although I hope fate treats our own curmudgeonly shopkeeper more kindly than it does Mr. Fikry, I’m happy just knowing that our store means as much to so many as his does.

—Emma

Cinema Books

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Anybody remember last month’s staff picks? One of mine was My Lunches with Orson, edited by Peter Biskind. Now, I’m an admitted fan, and I’ve read more books about Orson Welles than I’d care to admit, so it was obvious that I’d be reading it as soon as it came out. I didn’t pick up my copy from Island Books, though. I used the release date as an excuse to visit a secret Seattle treasure house, Cinema Books. It’s been in business since 1977, devoted exclusively to movie-related work, and I’m not sure there’s anything else like it in the country. Or anywhere, for that matter.

The owner is also a Seattle treasure. Stephanie Ogle opened her shop across the street from the Harvard Exit theater on Capitol Hill and moved it a few years later to its present location in the University District, around the corner from (and in the same building as) the Seven Gables theater. Throughout the past thirty-six years, she’s been an unobtrusive champion of movie-making and bookselling, rewarded in 2001 by the Northwest Film Forum. They bestowed upon her their George Bailey Prize, named after the character played by Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, given each year “to someone who has made an unrecognized contribution to the local film community, and like George Bailey, has continually worked for the betterment of others.”

Stephanie was kind enough to answer some questions for me via email after my visit.

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Q: How did you become a movie fan, and how did you turn from cineaste into bookseller?

A: I always loved movies and enjoyed reading books about film from an early age.

When my brother Jeremy and sister-in-law Susan wanted to open a bookstore in 1977 we decided we must specialize in order to differentiate ourselves from every other bookstore. Susan and Jeremy had become friends with the men who founded the original Wide World bookshop on 45th Street. I was the real movie fan of the three of us and was really enthusiastic about the movie connection. Jeremy and Susan left the store after two years. They wanted to travel and it is difficult to do when you own your own business.

Q: Tell us a bit about the store. How big is it? About how many books (and other specialty items) do you stock?

A: We have 1,000 square feet in space and have about 20,000 volumes on film, television and theatre at Cinema Books. We carry film-related magazines, posters, stills, cards, magnets, and calendars.

Q: With the growth of SIFF and the film industry in Seattle, you must have had more than a few brushes with celebrity. Any highlights to share?

A: We have had celebrity customers such as Jean Paul Belmondo, Jean-Luc Godard, and Colin Firth.

Q: Do you have favorite directors or screenwriters, current or classic?

A: I have loved John Ford movies since I was nine.

Q: Let’s talk about actual books. Do you have a favorite film-related title?

A: I think the best film star biography is Vivien Leigh by Anne Edwards. The best film history is The Parade’s Gone By … by Kevin Brownlow.

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Q: Thoughts about the future of bookselling, for you or in general?

A: Difficult to predict the future of bookstores. We are in a beleaguered state. But it is still has enormous rewards in terms of terrific customers who love books and love movies, a great bunch. They are passionate about everything from Godzilla to the avant-garde.

Q: Everyone working in retail has experienced … oddness, let’s say. (I’ve been hit with “Do you sell sea monkeys?” and “Excuse me sir, what is lard?”) Anything in this vein you’d like to get off your chest?

A: My favorite unusual experience in the store was when a young woman walked into the store and said she had to lie down on the floor because she was about to have a seizure and needed a safe place. A young man was there and helpfully moved a heavy card rack during her seizure because we feared she would hit her head. She recovered soon and started to get up but I made her sit there for a few more minutes to make sure. Then the young man asked “Where’s the camera?” He thought her seizure was staged for a candid camera event. We both assured him this was real. There was no camera. I had never seen the young woman before and she certainly told him she had had seizures all her life. She does get a few seconds warning and always attempts to get herself to a safe place when she knows a seizure is coming on. But he didn’t seem to believe us at all. Kept looking for that candid camera. He left seemingly convinced we had played a great trick on him for the benefit of some video we were filming. I guess that’s what comes of having a movie bookstore.

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Many thanks to Stephanie for allowing me to interview her. The next time you’re in her neighborhood, pay her a call. You’ll be glad you did.

—James

The Phantom of Island Books

It’s true, the Phantom of Island Books exists. I am the Phantom, and no, you probably haven’t seen me around the store. Or if you have, you probably didn’t realize I was an employee, since I have a habit of browsing the shelves and interrogating the booksellers just like a customer. Most of my work happens behind the scenes.

I write this post in response to a note from my esteemed colleagues, who mentioned to me recently that several of our loyal customers have sheepishly asked over the counter at Island Books, “Which one of you is Miriam?”

I have to say, I’m flattered, touched, and humbly embarrassed to hear that’s happening. But it makes sense. I’ve been blogging, writing newsletters, and working on our website for nearly a year now, so if people are asking who I am, it means what we’ve been up to is working. And if that’s the case, I’m elated.

The short explanation is, after my husband and I moved to Mercer Island from Capitol Hill about a year and a half ago and I left a four-year stint at “that-online-bookstore-that-will-not-be-named,” I realized that every time I stopped in or drove by Island Books, I wanted to work there. After eight years spent in the publishing industry, both in New York and Seattle, I longed to get back to my love for books and away from corporations and the politics of big business. As our loyal customers know, Island Books has always been about comfort and caring. That’s what I felt from the store, from the very first time I walked in and Roger Page said to me, “What can I do for you?”

After all, isn’t that what a book says to you every time you open it? Authors try their hardest to entertain, inspire, and educate us and all they require is our willingness to show up. The same is true of Island Books. So I thought, what could be more fun and rewarding than showing up to this special bookstore and helping spread the word about it? So that’s what I do. And trust me, I fought for this job. The Island Books staff works so hard to connect with customers in the store that moving into the online sphere used to be beyond their bandwidth, although Roger and the real web guru of this team, James Crossley, had already begun when I showed up on the scene. (James also happens to be a phenomenal writer, if you haven’t noticed, so feel free to join me in nagging him to write his own book.) Basically, I’m just the person who had the good fortune of showing up at the right time, and the tenacity to keep after Roger until he realized it would be easier to keep me than send me away.

If you’re curious about some of the other hats I wear, you can read this recent article that appeared in the Mercer Island Patch, or follow my new monthly NWBookLovers blog starting in June. I’m also the author of two ballet-themed novels, Girl in Motion and the just-released sequel, Breaking Pointe (both available through Island Books).

First and foremost, readers here should just know me as one of the many book lovers on the team (and the most junior). If you ask me, you’re lucky you can catch the far more experienced experts like Roger, Nancy, Lori, Cindy, Kay, James, Marni, and Garry in the store. They’ve been making Island Books the treasure it is far longer than I’ve had the pleasure of spreading the word. Together, our goal is to do whatever we can to make your experience at Island Books as warm and cozy as curling up with a good book. So thanks for staying connected. We appreciate you and consider you part of our family.

Have I mentioned how much I love this special store? And reading. Oh how I love reading. And I know you do too.

—Miriam