Know Your Bookstore

Know Your Bookstore: The Elliott Bay Book Company (Seattle)

In this new interview series, Monkeybicycle intern David Cotrone will be introducing you to a variety of independent booksellers and store owners.

The Elliott Bay Book Company is located in Seattle, WA. This interview was conducted with Casey O’Neil of the Elliott Bay staff.

 


 

Monkeybicycle: When was your bookstore founded? What prompted you to want to sell books?

Casey O’Neil: Elliott Bay was founded in 1973, so we are honored and grateful to be celebrating our 40th anniversary this June. Starting as a single room shop in Pioneer Square with just one employee, it expanded to over 20,000 sq. ft and over thirty employees. In April 2010 we moved up to the Capitol Hill neighborhood, to a great old timber-framed building with roughly the same square footage. It immediately felt like home, and our customers—old and new—have made the move a huge success.

When I was hired in 2008, I had been working construction for three years, and though I had become fairly adept at installing glass in buildings while being called a wide variety of derogatory names, I longed to be engaged in a very different kind of labor. I moved up to Seattle from California with the hope of getting a job at Elliott Bay. I knew I wanted to spend my days with books, and I was also hungry for more caring interaction with people. When I got the call that I didn’t get the job after my first interview, I threw my cellphone in a tree. But another position opened up a few weeks later, and when they offered it to me, I was ecstatic. Being a part of Elliott Bay has been an honor, an education, and a greater pleasure than I ever could have imagined.

Mb: What about your bookstore are you most proud of?

CON: Personally, I’m most proud of our customers. We get to stock the very best, under-appreciated, most intelligent books being published today, and people come in every day and buy them. Nothing better.

Mb: Does your location influence your store? If so, how?

CO: Seattle is a city that greatly values books, with one of the best public library systems in the country and several great independent bookstores. Our store is a reflection of the literary-minded community we live in, and our new neighborhood has been great for business—one of the best places in the world to see how many people still crave a physical place in their community where they can find the books they’re looking for, as well as the books they didn’t know they were looking for.

Mb: What’s your favorite part of your job?

CO: My favorite part of the job is being able to highlight those absolutely essential and remarkable books that can too easily be overlooked.

Mb: Personally, why do you read?

CO: Reading is the best way to travel into someone else’s mind, and also to let someone else into mine.

Mb: Do you host readings at your bookstore? If so, who’s given your most memorable one?

CO: We’ve hosted authors since the 1980’s, when Rick Simonson started our readings series. We average over ten readings a week, ranging from smaller, more intimate gatherings where amazing new voices are found, to events with world renown authors packing the house with hundreds of people.

The most remarkable recent event that comes to mind is the midnight release party for Sherman Alexie’s Blasphemy, complete with stories from Sherman, fry bread, balloon spirit animals, and music, including the One Gun Singers from the Colville reservation singing Sherman’s original song John Wayne’s Teeth—a memorable night and a mesmerizing song to have stuck in your head for a few weeks.

Another reading I will always remember was given a few years ago by Joseph McElroy. He’s written nine incredible novels over the last forty years (with one older novel Ancient History and his new novel Cannonball both forthcoming from Dzanc Books in June), and his work combines inexhaustible intelligence with immediate human warmth. His profound presence is inseparable from his work, and the evening was the perfect example of how a live reading encourages deep and meaningful connections between authors and their readers.

Mb: What and who are some of your favorite titles and authors?

CO: The book I can’t stop talking about is The Story of My Assassins by Tarun Tejpal (Melville House), an exceptional novel that sprawls over and through the contours and depths of modern India as it follows the five men implicated in a plot to assassinate a journalist in Delhi.

Mb: Another recent favorite is a collection of stories by the Irish writer Kevin Barry called There Are Little Kingdoms (Stinging Fly Press) Very funny, not afraid to get a little rough, but with this very beautiful and generous undercurrent that just makes you fall in love with every single one of his characters.

CO: And I can’t leave out one of my all-time favorites, Notes From No Man’s Land by Eula Biss (Graywolf), quite simply the most perfect collection of essays I have ever read.

Mb: Do you have hope for the future of books?

CO: Yes, I do…and you should too. With changes in the publishing industry, it’s easy to see how the bottom line can exert extraordinary pressure on the people who devote their labor to writing, publishing, and selling great books. I will always remember attending a panel on the future of publishing in which no one said anything about any actual books, but had plenty to say about “content consumption” and “digestion.” My favorite quote of the event was something to the effect of, “Books are products, just like shoes or toothpaste…except books are more content driven.” It would make a great t-shirt, “BOOKS: MORE CONTENT DRIVEN THAN TOOTHPASTE!”

My hope for the future of books comes from looking in a very different direction. On the same evening after that panel, I was given some much needed perspective by Mikhail Shishkin (author of Maidenhair, a sublime novel published by Open Letter) at his reading at McNally Jackson. In answering a similar question to the one I am answering now, he referred to a scene in which a prisoner chalks a picture of a boat on his cell wall. Every day the guard brings him his meal, and every day he finds the prisoner sitting there, patiently watching this boat. After many weeks of this, the guard opens the door again, but this time he finds that the boat is no longer on the wall, and the prisoner is gone as well. “This is what books can do,” Shishkin said.

It is in this vein that I continue to have immense hope that books will continue to do what they have always done…the impossible.

 
 
 


David Cotrone is from Plymouth, MA. His writing appears in Fifty-Two Stories, The Rumpus, PANK, Paper Darts, Necessary Fiction, Thought Catalog, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. You can find him at www.davidcotrone.com.

 

Know Your Bookstore: Parnassus Books (Nashville)

In this new interview series, Monkeybicycle intern David Cotrone will be introducing you to a variety of independent booksellers and store owners.

Parnassus Books is located in Nashville, TN. This interview was conducted with Karen Hayes of the Parnassus Books staff.

 


 

Monkeybicycle: When was your bookstore founded? What prompted you to want to sell books?

Karen Hayes: We opened November 16th, 2011. I fell into the book business by accident, when I started working at a book distributor in 1978. I could not have found a better career. Before opening the store, I worked at Random House as a sales rep for 18 years, most of that time calling on independent bookstores. When the main bookstore in town, Davis-Kidd announced they were declaring chapter 11 bankruptcy and closing, I started exploring the idea of opening a store. I knew that part of the problem Davis-Kidd had was that it gotten too big for today market, 30,000 square feet. I had seen that the majority of independents that have survived for decades did so by staying small and grounded in their local neighborhood. So that is what I set out to do. Two months into formulating a plan for the opening a store, my employer Random House offered early retirement to employees over 50, which I took advantage of, allowing me to not have to draw a salary from the store until well into the first year. Then a couple months later I met Ann Patchett, who became my business partner in the bookstore. I know that I was extremely lucky on both these counts and that the store may not have happened without them.

Mb: What about your bookstore are you most proud of?

KH: That we concentrate on the printed book. We have very few sidelines. The book inventory is what matters. It reflects the reading habits of our customers and features the local authors in our community.

Mb: Does your location influence your store? If so, how?

KH: It does. We are in what is considered the best shopping district in town. Because of that we get a lot of people into the store that are in the area visiting other shops, restaurants, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. The rents in this popular shopping area are naturally high, so we have to be careful about the size of the store. We need to make sure the sales per square foot are healthy when compared to the rent per square foot. We still have a few customers that would like to see us in a space bigger than our 3100 square feet. We are doing our best to explain that we cannot compete with Amazon on breadth of selection and that this is the size that will hopefully allow us to be around for a long time.

Mb: What sets your bookstore apart from the rest?

KH: (see: what we are most proud of) Also we have a piano in the store and we have regular music events. We are in Music City after all.

Mb: What’s your favorite part of your job?

KH: Seeing happy kids, customers, authors and booksellers in the store. The store is a very positive place to spend time in.

Mb: For you, why are books so important?

KH: They open up avenues for seeing the world in new ways.

Mb: Personally, why do you read?

KH: Ditto on above, and then there is also just pure escapism.

Mb: Do you host readings at your bookstore? If so, who’s given your most memorable one?

KH: We had around 200 events last year. Not all were at our store, because of size limitations. It is impossible to say which one was most memorable, so I will just mention one that we had last week with Luis Alberto Urrea. We had about sixty people who were thoroughly entertained by the stories of his family and how they influenced his books, Hummingbird’s Daughter and Queen of America. There are great writers and there are great oral storytellers, and it is such a pleasure when the two coincide.

Mb: What and who are some of your favorite titles and authors?

KH: Having been a reader for a few decades now, I know the answer to this question will change every few months, so I’ll just mention three authors and books from the past year. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller and Round House by Louise Erdrich.

Mb: Do you have hope for the future of books?

KH: YES!

Mb: Please share anything else you would like to say.

KH: Support your local bookstore. It matters to your community.

 
 
 


David Cotrone is from Plymouth, MA. His writing appears in Fifty-Two Stories, The Rumpus, PANK, Paper Darts, Necessary Fiction, Thought Catalog, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. You can find him at www.davidcotrone.com.

 

Know Your Bookstore: Quimby’s (Chicago)

In this new interview series, Monkeybicycle intern David Cotrone will be introducing you to a variety of independent booksellers and store owners.

Quimby’s is located in Chicago, IL. This interview was conducted with Liz Mason of the Quimby’s bookstore staff.

 


 

Monkeybicycle: When was Quimby’s founded? What prompted you to want to sell books?

Liz Mason: On September 15th, 1991, Steven Svymbersky, the founder of Quimby’s, opened the store in Chicago on 1328 N. Damen (at Evergreen) in Wicker Park, in a 1000 sq. ft. space. Since 1985 he has published over 50 zines with his friends, and has published Quimby Magazine for five years in Boston. Steven explained the philosophy of the store with these words: “I really want to carry every cool-bizarre-strange-dope-queer-surreal-weird publication ever written and published, and in time, Qvimby’s will. Because I know you’re out there and you just want something else, something other, something you never even knew could exist.” (And yes, that was a “v.”) In 1997, Steven sold the store to Eric Kirsammer, the owner of Chicago Comics. Steven moved to Amsterdam with his family shortly thereafter. Eric purchased the store from Steven in order to continue Steven’s commitment to the First Amendment. After a few years, the rent became too expensive to keep Quimby’s at the same spot in which Steven had opened it. Eric moved it to its current locale—1854 W. North Avenue—to provide it with a more permanent locale. He also still owns Chicago Comics. Quimby’s and Chicago Comics have a reciprocal “sister store” relationship, where we transfer materials between each other and often collaborate on ordering, outreach and off-site events.

Mb: Does your location influence your store? If so, how?

LM: Sure. We’re only 3 blocks away from the 6 corner of Damen, North and Milwaukee, the heart of Wicker Park. So we get some foot traffic and some traffic from when people are doing shopping in the area. Some people make a pilgrimage to see us, which has less to do with location, but it also helps that there are some record stores in the area, like Reckless.

Mb: What sets Quimby’s apart from the rest?

LM: We sell zines, comics and other weirdo independently published stuff that most bookstores do not.

Mb: What’s your favorite part of your job?

LM: Opening the mail!

Mb: For you, why are books so important?

LM: Art books are objects of art! Same with zines. Plus, a lot of the stuff we sell doesn’t exist in a digital format.

Mb: Personally, why do you read?

LM: For literacy, entertainment and enrichment.

Mb: Do you host readings at your bookstore? If so, who’s given your most memorable one?

LM: Yes. Here’s our events calendar: www.quimbys.com/blog/store-events/. Probably the most memorable one was a zinester reading where someone proposed to his fiancée on stage.

Mb: What and who are some of your favorite titles and authors?

LM: Anything by Chuck Klosterman (Fargo Rock City, The Visible Man, etc.), graphic novels by Dan Clowes, etc.

Mb: Do you have hope for the future of books?

LM: Sure. As long as they’re still printing I’ll be reading them.

Mb: Please share anything else you would like to say.

LM: Lots of good Quimby info here.

 
 
 


David Cotrone is from Plymouth, MA. His writing appears in Fifty-Two Stories, The Rumpus, PANK, Paper Darts, Necessary Fiction, Thought Catalog, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. You can find him at www.davidcotrone.com.