On Monday, February 23, dozens of bookstore owners, booksellers, and authors from as far away as Bellingham gathered at the wood-lined, slightly claustrophobic pub in the basement of Ravenna Third Place Books to raise a glass with former HarperCollins sales rep Seira Wilson. Wilson, who promoted HarperCollins titles to independent booksellers all around Washington State, was a victim of the latest round of layoffs at the company, which reportedly lost over 75 percent of its operating income in the last half of 2008. Brian Grogan, HarperCollins's senior vice president of sales, said by phone that "some of the current sales reps will have larger territories than before," meaning that another salesperson will be absorbing the Northwest into his or her territory. Over trays of hummus, sales reps from other publishers quietly expressed concern as to who would be downsized next, and John Marshall, the book critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, wandered around the party with the specter of the P-I's shuttering looming over him.
But here's the thing: Even as people downstairs were fearing for the future of Seattle's bookstore industry, Ravenna Third Place Books was thriving upstairs. Customers browsed the stacks contentedly; a group that gathers monthly to discuss science-related topics was sitting in a semicircle; and the store's newest addition, a branch of the popular Capitol Hill Greek restaurant Vios Cafe that's within the bookstore, was slammed—not an empty table in the place. It had been a while since I'd walked into a bookstore and heard the steady murmur of people in the background; I'd forgotten how pleasant that sound is.
Ravenna Third Place has always been a pleasant place to browse, especially because of its skylight and large windows, but it's had its problems, too. The Honey Bear Cafe, in the rear of the store, took up too much space. And walking into the building felt like entering an enormous Hallmark store: There were massive racks set aside for cutesy bookmarks and chintzy gift items. Robert Sindelar, the managing partner of Third Place Books, acknowledges that the Ravenna branch (the other one is in Lake Forest Park) wasn't perfect. "The whole thing hadn't quite jelled. We realized that [the cafe] wasn't quite a full-service restaurant. It wasn't quite a great coffee shop. It was doing five things, and it wasn't doing any of them really well."
Last year, they closed the cafe, reached an agreement with Vios, and started renovating the store to include the full-service restaurant. When they started that process, Sindelar said, "We realized we had to scrap the layout of the store as it was." Vios's tables now run along one side of the store, and a wall was torn out and replaced with windows "so people could see the activity from the outside."
That's an enormous change. When you approach RTP now, you can see people sitting together at tables—eating, talking, drinking coffee, and reading. That's a much better advertisement for a bookstore than a window full of books. (It helps that the food is delicious and affordable.) Besides the aforementioned monthly Science on Tap lecture series, book clubs and knitting groups meet on a weekly basis, and the staff encourages this type of behavior by learning people's names and greeting them personally. Between the small, warmly lit pub and the vivacious restaurant, the bookstore feels like a community center now, a place where people meet and spend time. It's already reaping financial rewards: Sindelar confirms that RTP bookstore sales this January increased by 5 percent over last January.
The restaurant's expansion necessitated other changes, all handled beautifully: The cash registers were made less conspicuous, the bookshelves moved tighter together, giving a denser, more forestlike feel to the browsing experience. And the store greatly cut the space dedicated to greeting cards and other frivolous—but profitable—gift items. "There are so many small quality gift shops in Seattle," Sindelar said. "We'd have to dedicate too much space to do it really well." Walking into RTP since the renovations (completed in December) is like the scene in a movie where the heroine takes off her glasses, lets down her hair, and is revealed as a beauty queen. I've been there twice in the last month, and when I leave, I immediately begin planning the next time I can go back.
This doesn't have to be an isolated experience: Virtually every neighborhood in Seattle could sustain this kind of community events center. Before the deal with Vios was finalized, Sindelar was in talks with a theater company—he declines to say which one—about sharing space. "They had this idea that maybe their lobby should be a bookstore during the day. There's a bit of shared risk there. It's realistic for both an independent bookstore and a nonprofit like a theater to share space."
He's absolutely right. Three or four like-minded small businesses could easily share a space like this, combining their cachet and customer base into a kind of small cultural engine. Avid fans of the arts tend to spread the wealth to many different kinds of culture. Why can't Bailey/Coy Books and Northwest Film Forum share a space with the BottleNeck Lounge? What if Queen Anne Books and a theater troupe were to move in together? Or Fremont Place Book Company, a small art gallery, a tavern, and Sonic Boom Records? Dozens of examples of that excrementitious corporate buzzword "synergy"—the theater's stage could be used for author events when there were no plays scheduled, for instance—spring immediately to mind.
The other great important change at RTP: Since January 1, Michael Coy—one of the founders of Bailey/Coy Books and until recently an owner of M Coy Books—has become the store manager. When M Coy closed last year, many in Seattle's book community feared that Coy's decades of experience and practical bookselling knowledge would be lost. Sindelar believes that, as knowledgeable people like Seira Wilson are squeezed out of the business by penny-pinching conglomerates, "a vitality of book knowledge" in Seattle "could become diluted," and the fact that Coy has such a long history and so many friendships in the community is a huge thing for the store and for Ravenna.
The party in Wilson's honor went on for hours, and many celebrants, myself included, probably had one beer too many. But things never became funereal: Wilson's natural effervescence—she's a young woman who remembers everyone's name and reading tastes no matter how long it's been since she's last seen them—saved the party from becoming a kind of recessionary wake. Memories of drunken get-togethers were excitedly—and, yes, drunkenly—recalled. Eventually, as the night wore on, guests walked arm in arm out of the beautiful bookstore, swearing that they'd return sometime soon and be together again in happier times ahead.