The wife and kids and I were briefly in Seattle last week to celebrate a friend’s wedding. We stayed at a hotel in the University District four blocks from one of my very favorite used bookshops. Magus Books, thank God, does not change. With its musty-merry smell, its creaky wooden floors, its barely navigable aisles and long counters and tables piled nose-high with new acquisitions, it was no different than when I first discovered it twenty-three years ago.
Tag Archives: Seattle
My parents used to lead us on heroic family road trips every three years, traversing 1,800 miles of mountains, deserts and high plains to the gentle rolling prairieland of central Iowa where paternal relations tilled the soil or lived in antique-shop towns like Jamaica or Rippey or Grand Junction. These were the overland odysseys of my childhood, thick with wonders: lightning bugs on summer nights; Nebraska thunderstorms; pit-stops at Wall Drug in South Dakota; vistas of munching bison in Yellowstone; and the musty house of my ancient great-grandfather where a spoked tractor wheel had leant against a tree so long that the trunk grew round it, and where the storm cellar was full of tinned food in old-fashioned paper labels printed in red and green and yellow ink still fresh and bright.
There’s no predicting the particular moments and images a child will recall years hence. It may be that none of those that most impressed me on our recent trip to the Pacific Northwest will prove enduring for either my son or daughter. But I like to imagine them in future remembering the strangely mobile silhouette of Mt Shasta that seemed always to recede as we approached; the big-windowed, high-ceilinged room of our Portland hotel, converted from a turn-of-the-century elementary school; the passage over the Columbia and up Interstate-5 into the primeval woods of Washington State; the bleached glacial monolith of Mt Rainier; the cramped Seattle ice-cream shop-cum-pinball arcade with a live band performing at the front; the badminton game in the park when a half dozen swallows curled silently around us mere inches above the grass; the front porch of a friend’s house across from the zoo and the fenced elk maundering through the trees on the other side of the street.
Books, like music, have a wonderful power to bind themselves to memories of specific moments or places. Typically it’s the reading of books rather than the purchasing of them that takes on the borrowed flavor, but I can usually recall where I bought a book too. In Portland last week we spent three successive days in the legendary Powell’s, where I picked up, among others: Vertigo by W.G. Sebald, Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams, Twelve Stories by Guy Davenport, a nice older edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Virginibus Puerisque, and a paperback edition of Philemon Holland’s 1601 translation of Pliny’s Natural History. The latter I consider a special find, though, taken as an object, it’s the most unlovely of them all, dog-eared and water damaged. The one title I was most excited to discover in the stacks, however, was a children’s book I’d given up ever finding: Mervyn Peake’s Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor. I wasn’t even looking for it. The title on the spine simply leapt out at me as I walked by.
I’m afraid our local coffeehouse is nothing special. The high ceilings and wood floors do little to compensate for the awful home-roasted brew. The baked goods are acceptable, the tea merely potable. I recently brought my son here and watched him over the edge of my book while he sat with legs crossed, picking at crumbs of banana bread and reading Paddington. He likes his Earl Grey with a great deal of sugar and milk.
As an undergraduate in the early ‘90s my friends and I used to frequent a Seattle coffeehouse known as the Last Exit. The baristas were unpleasant, the coffee equally so, but it was still a favorite. Late nights at the Last Exit were smoky, crowded and rowdy. Professors declaimed godlike in crescents of adoring sophomores. Unwashed hipsters plucked guitars beneath high windows. Junior Marxists preached from the corners. Others crowded round tables to watch games of chess or of go, and to whisper philosophically. My friends and I would order our pulpy espresso drinks and sit behind piles of books and papers and pretend to study. It was pretentious as hell, but heaven to us then.
Ten years later a new coffeehouse came to the neighborhood where my wife and I lived. We got to know the owners before they opened shop and my wife became their first employee. Here the coffee was reliably excellent. The locals would wander in to read or talk. There was a piano in the back, and couches. Patrons ranged from age four to eighty-four and old movies were shown once a week, projected onto the wall. Twice a year the owners would throw parties with gobs of fancy food and wine and invite the whole neighborhood. I used to help my wife clean up after closing shifts and we once saw the aurora borealis as we walked home. That was heavenly too.
What’s so wrong with the coffeehouse that serves the neighborhood where we live today? It can’t be just the coffee. The image of my son sitting there with his cup of tea and his feet dangling from the seat might help endear the place to me. But the other patrons all sit alone staring at their laptops, each monopolizing a table for four while snakepits of power cords twist round their ankles. I don’t want to talk to anyone – I’m not an outgoing person or very friendly toward strangers. I just want to feel like there’s someone else in the room.
Four days of rain in California is something of note. The roof of our little home beats like a drum under a waterfall. At night our dreams filter through purling treble notes that ring from the metal throats of gutters stretched under the eaves. The soil drinks to reeling limit and vomits all excess onto walks and streets and courtyards. In brief gaps between the showers, doves dive famished from the boughs to hunt for worms fighting up through liquid earth.
In Seattle, where I lived for twelve years, forty days of rain at a stretch was not unheard of. I managed somehow to bear it, to claim to enjoy it. When the dark and wet had found its way too far into my brain I would visit the heated cactus room at the Volunteer Park Conservatory, or sit for an hour under the lights in the butterfly garden at the Pacific Science Center.
Here summer consumes nine months of the year. Sol reigns invictus from April to October but scatters himself a week at a time through the rest of the calendar too. His banishment behind the clouds is always a piece of play-acting, all the better to astonish us into awed submission at his next revelation. The weather prophets predict his return tomorrow. Already the magnolia out my window is lit like a candelabrum with pink tongues of flame.
I was in Seattle this past weekend. For the return flight I occupied a middle seat in a very full aircraft. On one side of me was a friendly Iranian woman who kept offering me dried cherries with pits in them. On the other side was a muscular fellow about my age reading a giant hardbound volume titled Modern Reloading, which describes the process of reloading firearms to a degree of detail I would have thought impossible. I felt a little womanish seated beside him fingering my copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
But it was while flying to Seattle, two days before, that an odd conjunction occurred. I had been seated in the terminal at my gate for perhaps a half hour and had just finished a chapter of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. I replaced the book in my carry-on and boarded the plane. As soon as we had taken off and reached an altitude sufficient to convince me that the plane really could fly all by itself, I took out my book again and opened it to the next chapter, which was chapter nine. (Now before I quote the passage which so surprised me I should explain that Calvino’s book, a post-modernist classic, is written largely in the second person, which is to say that you, the Reader, are often addressed directly and play an active role in the story – a trick which Calvino manages to pull off fairly well.) This is the first paragraph I read:
You fasten your seatbelt… To fly is the opposite of traveling: you cross a gap in space, you vanish into the void, you accept not being in any place for a duration which is itself a void in time; then you reappear, in a place and in a moment with no relation to the where and the when in which you had vanished. Meanwhile, what do you do? How do you occupy this absence of yourself from the world, and of the world from you? You read; you do not raise your eyes from the book between one airport and another, because beyond the page there is the void… You realize that it takes considerable heedlessness to entrust yourself to unsure instruments, handled with approximation. (But are you reflecting on the air journey or on reading?)
I read on with rapt attention, worried. But I was comforted to learn that the flight passes without incident and the Reader’s plane makes a safe landing. And it did.
In a town like London there are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.
~ George Orwell, “Bookshop Memories” (1936)
In any American city of middling size there are plenty of more-than-certifiable lunatics walking the streets and making themselves at home in the neighborhood bookshop. That’s assuming the neighborhood still has a bookshop. In Seattle, at least, it used to. Seattle in the 1990s was near to bursting with local independent booksellers: places like Elliot Bay, Beatty’s, Twice Sold, Magus, Horizon, Pistil, and Couth Buzzard, to name a few. It also had its fair share of certifiables.
Being unambitious and in no particular hurry to grapple with the duties of adult life, I took a job with a local Seattle bookseller as soon as I finished college in ’95, and stayed on for three years. It’s astonishing to recall how little money I made. I’m not at all clear how I managed to both eat and pay my rent. But the coworkers were a friendly cast and I was happy enough to spend my days surrounded by books.
The store was located just north of downtown and was open late. It was set in a dense neighborhood, thick with bars and restaurants and nightclubs. The Opera House was down the street. There was a convention center and a sports arena too. We were a struggling but busy shop and our clientele was a mixed lot. While working there I sold books and magazines to several famous rock stars (yawn). I chatted occasionally with Ron Reagan Jr., who lived nearby. And while he was in town for an extended performance at the repertory theater down the street, actor Ethan Hawke used to sit on the floor of our poetry section and finger through the stacks for thirty minutes each day. I never saw him buy anything.
Our location and late hours made us a favorite with the local crazies. These are the folks I can’t help thinking of when I read the Orwell quote above. There was the tattered transient we referred to as “Redbeard” who made a habit of leering at blondes and threatening the lives of strangers, myself included. There was the troubled young woman who was always showing off a ghastly wound on her arm, which she wouldn’t let heal, and who kept a pet rat in her pocket. There was a tall spindly fellow who never uttered more than a mousy squeak but liked to wear a pink tutu, and who once defecated on the floor of the children’s section.
Then there was our favorite, a schizophrenic junkie we nicknamed “The Count,” who was forever changing his clothes and decorating his face (his whole face) with lipstick. He was harmless, really, but had a habit of cackling in a wicked sort of way that disturbed our elderly customers and parents with small children. The Count liked to give gifts and I still have a desk sign made of some exotic wood with the name “Fauzi Daud” carved into it, which he gave me. He claimed to know Roger Waters and Jerry Garcia and the President of the United States, and to have lived as a vampire among the Hebrew slaves of ancient Egypt. One day he told me matter-of-factly that he had fallen asleep at the park, woke up under a bush, and “shattered into a million pieces.”
Less insane but still charming was the fat-faced man with the tiny eyes who would hold the newspaper to his nose in order to read it and who never went anywhere without his ill-tempered dwarf friend; or the walrus-like retiree with a bristly white beard who twirled a cane and faked a British accent while attempting to seduce one of my coworkers, famously offering him, in a lascivious tone we parodied for months, a bite of his “spiced apple tart;” or the uneducated proprietress of a local coffee shop who’d once taken a bullet in a domestic dispute and imagined it gave her a superior perspective and a homey kind of mystical insight.
It was easy to get into trouble working at the bookshop. There was no shortage of illicit substances in the back room and the employees were often high or drunk. Certain kinds of business transactions were known to take place in the parking lot. One of my coworkers, a short guy with an Irish temper, lived across the street and would invite us over for drinks after closing. One Christmas Eve, several of us drank a great quantity of beer and marched around the neighborhood to find an open convenience store and buy cigarettes. On a street corner we passed through a gauntlet of righteously intoxicated panhandlers demanding holiday contributions. Our Irish friend got into a shouting match with one of them and we only barely escaped an all-out brawl by dragging him, hollering and fuming, back to his apartment.
One of my most memorable evenings at the bookshop involved the death of a goose. It was a couple hours after dark when a woman walked in with a big Canada goose in her arms. She was distraught. The bird had just been hit by a car, she said, and we needed to do something about it. She handed the goose, still alive, to my friend W. Then the woman fled in tears. Almost immediately, the goose’s head dropped and it went into convulsions. W set it down and there before a crowd of astonished customers it agonizingly expired on the floor. We boxed it up and pranked a new employee (who’d been in the back room) by telling him the box was full of books that needed shelving in the nature and field guides section. Then we called a non-emergency police number to inquire after the proper disposal of the body. Two hours later a man named Bob came to collect the goose. He was so touched by the way we’d laid a flower on its breast and scribbled farewells on the cardboard coffin that he wept a little.
My bookshop days were a bit of a low-life period. There was plenty of good reading and some good conversation, but in the end this particular bookshop was just a low-life sort of place, especially after dark. I stayed longer than I should have. I told myself that I was playing Prince Hal, that I would “awhile uphold the unyoked humor of idleness” which I was presently enjoying, but that when the time was ripe I would “imitate the Sun” and find better employment. It wasn’t the need to impress any monarchical parent that finally spurred my departure, however. It was marriage. The bookshop itself locked doors for the last time two or three years later.