For roughly the price of a standard Netflix account, you can become a member of Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum, a membership library opening January 20 in the YMCA building downtown. David Brewster, founder of various arts-and-media-type institutions around town including Seattle Weekly, Town Hall, and Crosscut, is Folio's founder and president.
Brewster told me that he sees the library as a work space and reading space for members, and a cultural center for the public. For $125 per year, members will be able to check out thousands of books donated from various personal-professional libraries about town, most of them contemporary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. They'll have access to a room for working on long-term writing projects and another room that serves as a kind of coworking space. There'll be buck-a-cup coffee in the lobby and a big reading room where you can just read.
But when you hear "athenaeum," you picture white marble and men in togas—or failing that, mahogany, vintage leather Chesterfield chairs, and lots of little green glass banker's lamps. Not so at Folio, at least not yet. When I visited for a soft opening event, the majority of the floor space was covered in office-space-gray carpeting, and the large reading room was ablaze with super-intense halogen lights. It felt like standing beneath a UFO perpetually about to land. (Brewster said he planned to gussy up the interior by bringing in comfy chairs and softening the UFO lights with filters, in addition to installing floor lamps here and there. "The look we're going for is independent bookstore," he said.)
Folio earns its "athenaeum" in the three fancy event rooms upstairs, where noontime and evening programs will take place. Some of the programming sounds promising. On the promising side: Brewster said he wants Folio to host debates on local issues that feature "left, right, and center" opinions. (Example topic: "Is the $15 minimum wage going to cost jobs?") He mentioned wanting to put more black intellectuals onstage, à la Stephanie Ellis-Smith's Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas. He also wants to run a musical series where you watch a string quartet practice for a piece, so you can see how musical performances come together, and also a literary series that invites translators to talk about their craft. When he talks about programming, Brewster projects a "We'll try it and see!" vibe, and it's clear the ideas he presents are driven more by intellectual curiosity than a butts-in-seats imperative.
The YMCA building is about half a block away from the Central Library, and the reflected glare of Koolhaas crystal makes it even harder not to grimace at the upper-middlebrow, Bainbridge liberal blech of the words "membership library" and "athenaeum." Then again, the fact that we already have a cool public library doesn't mean Folio shouldn't exist, or that there's no room for such an enterprise. In fact, Folio might in some ways be better for writers. To use the writers' room at the public library, you have to have a book contract or be able to prove that your work requires library resources. And it's not like there's gonna be a bouncer. Nonmembers will be welcome to read Folio's books and attend its programs.
The idea, Brewster said, is to create public intellectual institutions that imitate the world of universities, without being locked behind the academic paywall. He mentioned Seattle Arts & Lectures, independent bookstores, and (blushingly) Town Hall as institutions that are part of this effort.
"I'm just adding one more freight car to that train," he said.
I'm attracted to the dream of Folio, in that it resurrects the Athenian tradition of the gymnasium, a place that fused the interests of the body and the mind. Philosophers and students would lift heavy rocks, bathe, interrogate the mysteries of life, and maybe fuck each other while eating figs. YMCA members get half off Folio's dues, and Folio members get a discount at the Y, so it seems possible. Minus, maybe, the fucking.
I could see settling into a weekly routine of watching a debate with local thinkers or a conversation with local writers, hitting the gym thereafter to process and/or make fun of the thoughts I heard, and then heading home for a little late dinner. If I did that a couple times a week, I'd be using it with more regularity than I now use Netflix. Plus I would be with people. Doing things. Instead of with myself and my loneliness.
But Folio will only be as good and diverse and interesting as its members. When I attended the soft opening, I was the youngest person in the crowd by several wars. I saw maybe a couple people of color? I didn't ask how much anyone had in their bank accounts, but judging by the poetry-moans that rippled across the crowd when Brewster mentioned the possibility of Folio obtaining a subscription to Dwell, it didn't seem like many people in there were scrounging for rent.
If young, curious people from many different backgrounds give Folio a try, I think they'll find its programs and ethos a welcome counterbalance in our age of shouty self-righteousness. If they don't give it a try, Folio will likely be a mediocre but benign cultural gesture in a town pretty full up on mediocre, benign cultural gestures.