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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Last Word Books
The 1990’s were an awful time for independent bookstores. I open with that statement because it’s the first thing I think about, when I think about the bookstores I frequented as a teenager, in the 1990’s, in Seattle. They disappeared, one after another, throughout the latter part of the decade, in the wake of the Barnes & Noble and Borders expansions.
I never understood the popularity of the chains. Sure, a building full of books is a building full of books–its contents naturally confer sublimeness. But the chains were all the same: they had the same neutral flooring, the same polished woodgrain, the same computer-generated signage with the same bland fonts. And then there was the national chain bookstore smell: like a hotel lobby during continental breakfast service.
The bookstores I frequented on Capital Hill, in the University District, Ballard, and downtown, were grungy, just like the popular music of the era. They usually had a cart of cheap used books out front, a store cat or six, and shelf labels made of masking tape.
My favorite, just a block from my high school, was Red & Black Books, an old-school anarchist collective where I bought my “Keep Your Laws Off My Body” button and “Act Up” stickers, and picked up copies of the free weeklies and The Rocket. It closed in 1999, just months before the WTO protests that shut down the city and briefly radicalized Seattle’s otherwise blithely progressive population.
When I travel, the itinerary usually contains a stop at the local grocery co-op, a thrift shop, and at least one bookstore. It’s so easy to fall in love with a city by way of its indie bookshops. Sometimes it’s an unassuming shop in a tiny strip mall, like Eugene’s Black Sun Books, or a hidden affair up a side staircase, over the worker’s collective cafe, like Montpelier’s Black Sheep Books. Other times, it’s a classy corner in an upscale shopping district, like Richmond’s Black Swan Books, or the two-story nook of book stacks that is Bellingham’s Eclipse Books.
Most recently, I fell for Olympia’s (WA) Last Word Books , a store that so resembled the bookstores of my youth that I knew I would have to make regular stops en route between Portland and Seattle.
Last Word’s selection covers all genres and subjects. I headed straight for Literature, of course, where contemporary popular titles are side by side with small press offerings and paperback classics. (Recent finds: 1950’s Vintage paperbacks of Howards End, and Stories by Elizabeth Bowen, with classy Alfred Zalon covers; and Sweet Days of Discipline, by Fleur Jaeggy, with the Joseph Brodsky endorsement, “Reading time is approximately four hours.”).
Art adorns the walls above the 10-foot bookshelves, and there are creaky ladders on rolling tracks here and there. Science Fiction and Fantasy have their own cases, next to drama and poetry. An eclectic–if disheveled–children’s section contains collectibles (for me) and cheap reading copies (for my nose-picking three-year-old). The collection of pulp paperbacks in the second room (which houses the press and zine library), is easy to miss, but worth seeking out for finds like an original copy of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt , which was too dear for me at $25, but still tempting.
As for the atmosphere, there’s the jangle of the street outside and the long, shady aisles to browse. The place is not without a musty corner or two; one is outfitted with a not-quite-life-sized cut-out of John Wayne. The staff are as friendly as I can stand–helpful if asked, but otherwise perfectly disinterested in me–and frequently voluble with each other and their regulars on matters social and political. I’ve never met a more aloof store cat anywhere. The small black feline sauntered right past my out-stretched hand without a sniff or a rub. Twice. I was duly charmed. Much as I was by the advertisement for Drunken Poetry: a monthly event in which a “designated drunk” reads poetry submissions from the audience.
As a writer and former bookseller, I don’t care so much where you buy your books so long as you replenish that stack on your bedside table every now and then (so long as you have a stack on your beside, I should say). If a Barnes & Noble is your option, have at it. The survival of books and bookstores is coming to depend more on people reading for reading’s sake and shopping in person for the sake of local economies.
For myself, I will never shop the chains; I prefer a less sanitary experience. I would rather leave a bookstore with a light film on my fingers from handling the merchandise. Like the sand and salt on the skin after a day at the beach, the essence of the bookshop should linger on the body (and in the spirit) for hours, or even days, afterwards.
Alexis M. Smith grew up in Soldotna, Alaska, and Seattle, Washington. She received an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College. She has written for Tarpaulin Sky and powells.com. Her first novel, Glaciers, a Tin House Books New Voice, was published in January. She has a son and two cats, and they all live together in a little apartment in Portland, Oregon.