Spokane is a railroad town, a river town, a college basketball town, and a town of transcendently good ginger-molasses cookies. But it's also a literary oasis.
The Spokanites I talked to more or less all tell the same story: The literary scene in Spokane is blooming. There's lots of new energy here (thanks, low cost of living!), people are using that energy to write books and participate in performance poetry events, and everyone supports everyone else's projects. The writing program at Eastern Washington University helps, as well as writers who blow up but stay put.
If/when you ever visit, check out these historical and contemporary landmarks that have nourished and continue to nourish those endeavors. Like the town itself, the stories behind these places are wilder than you might imagine.
827 W First Ave
Cinematic genius David Lynch used to drink here, but the only thing that matters is a story that hometown author-hero Jess Walter (We Live in Water, Citizen Vince) told me about that time he tailed Evel Knievel all the way to this bar.
"I was a police reporter, and a cop told me they were investigating Evel Knievel as part of a cocaine trafficking ring centered on the old Ridpath Hotel," he wrote. "Evel had a Aston Martin sports car, and I'd see it parked in front of downtown bars along Sprague [Avenue]. So one night, I tailed him from bar to bar with a friend of mine. There was a bartender named Reba at the Baby Bar who would sing Patsy Cline songs into the soda dispenser, and I sat with Evel and a buddy of mine and we drank and drank and watched her sing to us. We drank so much, I forgot all about tailing Evel. Reba later died, fell off a cliff in Canada with her boyfriend. Evel never got arrested in the cocaine investigation."
Novelist Sharma Shields (The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac) says the falls "featured hugely in both Jess Walter's first work of fiction, Over Tumbled Graves, and Nance Van Winckel's poetry collection Pacific Walkers." She adds that many local poets and writers have been inspired by both the darkness and the power of the river.
Paths running alongside the falls put visitors well within misting distance of both the overhang and the plunge pool. (I saw a big splash leap over the barrier wall and soak a little girl in pink sweats. She laugh-cried.) Because you can get so close, your body fills with the river's roar after only two or three minutes of staring at the water rushing over the cliff.
Sherman’s Spiral Poem “That Place Where Ghosts of Salmon Jump”
On a platform in Overlook Park
According to Allie Todd at Spokane Historical, this poem is "written in its entirety on a polished granite spiral set in concrete, right at the spot where Alexie was inspired to write it." The spot overlooks Spokane Falls. In the poem, Alexie's speaker tells the Spokane Indian origin story of the falls and expresses profound anger about the recklessness of white men: "Look at all of this, / and tell me that concrete ever equals love, Coyote, / these white men sometimes forget to love their own mothers / so how could they love this river which gave birth / to a thousand lifetimes of salmon?"
Heavy construction surrounding Riverfront Park prevented me from seeing and reading the poem, which seems a little on the nose.
Vachel Lindsay’s Room at the Historic Davenport Hotel
10 S Post St
Despite my advanced degrees in literature, I only sort of knew that Vachel Lindsay was a canonical American poet. So when Washington State poet laureate (and Spokanite) Tod Marshall told me Lindsay lived at the Historic Davenport Hotel for five years, I thought, "Oh, huh, I thought that guy was French." But after talking about the famous/infamous poet with the Davenport's concierge, Marshall, I wanted to read everything I could by and about the man.
The concierge and I were in the elevator headed up to see Lindsay's old room, when suddenly he turned to me and said, in the tone of a British spy, "Surely you've heard about his porcelain dolls?"
"Well," he went on, "the man owned two [toddler-size] porcelain dolls, and he demanded they be sat and served at the restaurant. Mr. Davenport accommodated Mr. Lindsay's request for nearly a year, but unfortunately Lindsay had to be cordially evicted."
Lindsay didn't end up on the street. He found a home in Browne's Addition, the first residential neighborhood in Spokane, and lived there until he died. But while at the hotel, he wrote many poems and occasionally met with a very young Spokane poet, Carolyn Kizer.
1214 W Summit Parkway
On the other side of the river, Spark Central sits in a gleaming new development called Kendall Yards, which is named for the railroad tracks that used to be there. The place is a playground for famous writers and a fertile ground for emerging ones. "Think Hugo House meets 826 meets library, and throw in a bunch of robots for good measure," said Kate Lebo, former Seattleite and current Spark Central board member.
Check out fiction and poetry from local writers in the stacks, show up for a reading, or take some writing classes for adults on the cheap. A poetry-writing class with the city's poet laureate, Laura Read, might cost $40.
They have reading parties and writing parties. Writers of all ages, executive director Brooke Matson says, camp out and listen to live music while they tackle their novels or poems. Parents can write with their kids or let them play with the robots (!) in a little high-tech workshop in the corner. It's pretty magical.
Sherman Alexie’s First Apartment
S Jefferson Dr
In this big white house converted into apartments near downtown Spokane, Sherman Alexie wrote major works of fiction, including the short-story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which launched his career. Look through the far right window on the top floor and you'll see his first apartment. He wrote Lone Ranger and First Indian on the Moon there. Then he moved across the hall into a bigger space, where he wrote Reservation Blues. That's the far left window. He wrote all those books on a Brother word processor. If you don't know what a "Brother" is, google it and weep.
He's a stay-at-home writer. "I have never been a coffee shop guy," Alexie said. "And I was too poor to be a coffee shop guy even if I wanted to be."
Atticus Coffee & Gifts
222 N Howard St
Excellent coffee shop attached to a gift shop that sells coffee and books. Young-adult novelist and former high-school English teacher Kris Dinnison (You and Me and Him) owns the place with her husband, Andy. She worked at the cafe full-time while writing her book, and she says that pieces of conversations and characters from Atticus definitely made it into the book.
The cafe attracts a lot of writers. Local YA authors Trent Reedy and Stephanie Oakes write here. Jess Walter wrote here on occasion until he moved to his new spot, which I will not blow up in these pages. Poet and professor Dan Butterworth still writes here, and poet Jonathan Johnson was writing on the patio during my visit.
402 W Main Ave
This indie bookstore has been serving Spokane's readers since 1978, but it's lived in this large, airy, balustrade-intensive spot since 1993. It can be hard to convince authors to stop by on a tour, but their inland location hasn't prevented cool shit from happening. Owner John Waite told me that in 2004, after reading at the store for Spokane's excellent Get Lit series, Kurt Vonnegut pied-pipered an impromptu bar crawl around downtown. A woman fainted here while listening to Chuck Palahniuk read from his grotesque book of shorts stories, Haunted. Antonio Banderas and Viggo Mortensen shopped here when they were working on movies.
The store is charming and barn-like. Used and new books mingle in the stacks. There's a huge game store inside of it, a remnant of its early life as the Book and Game Company in 1978. If you want comics, the warm and knowledgeable booksellers will tell you to head down the street to Merlyn's Comics and Games. A few decades ago, you might have seen fantasy writer David Eddings there, flipping through the new arrivals.
Bookseller and Buddhist minister in training Melissa Opel, who has worked at the store for more than 10 years, calls Auntie's an "oasis." She's right.