There's a funny sign hanging at Twice Sold Tales, a used book store on Capitol Hill known for its resident cats. On the door of the closet containing the litter box, a brass plaque reads: "The Contents of This Catbox Are Dedicated to the Life and Work of Christopher Frizzelle, Writer for The Stranger, May 10, 2003."
Jamie Lutton, the owner of the store, bought the engraved plaque for $40 after Frizzelle wrote in The Stranger that the store's former location, two blocks away, smelled like cat pee. "It was really bad for business," she said. To this day, Frizzelle, now the editor of The Stranger, gets texts from friends saying things like "Do you realize your name is on a kitty litter box? What did you do?" Frizzelle regrets his wording and admits the sign is hilarious. Twice Sold Tales continues to take the piss out of him, recently running an ad on the back of The Stranger featuring the plaque.
We haven't covered the store in ages, so I recently paid a visit. Over the years, there have been as many as seven and as few as two cats stalking the aisles of Twice Sold Tales. They curl up in cat beds, crawl into boxes and poke their heads out of the handholds, and sit queenly atop cat trees as they stare out the window, chattering at the chickadees and crows. They die of old age, or Lutton places them in homes if they don't take to shop life.
The current crop of felines, which Lutton sources from shelters, is particularly adorable, and each enlivens the store with its own personality.
Buster is the rascal, but his big blue eyes make you instantly forgive any trespass. The store buys used books from customers, typically offering store credit instead of cash. Once, Buster snuck into the suitcase of a regular bookseller during a transaction with the store manager. The seller zipped up his bag with the cat asleep (!) inside, and drove all the way home without knowing. When he unzipped the suitcase, Buster sprang out and surprised him. Buster was returned to the store without incident.
The other cats are Hardy (named not for the Victorian-era poet, but for Laurel's partner in comedy), Lily, and Eleanore (named after Eleanor of Aquitaine, a medieval duchess and the queen consort of France, who led the Second Crusade and was also the patron of several poets).
Hardy is a big black-and-white cat. Store manager Ben described him as "food-oriented," and said he often gets in the way, though lovably so. Lily is precious—a sweet, cuddly, playful kitten not quite a year old. She's mottled with black, orange, and white. And then there's Eleanore.
Eleanore is a light-seeker but also a creature of the shadows. She's a long-haired gray cat with a stub tail and ancient eyes. She moves among the bookshelves with the gait of a wounded poet, a world-weary sphinx. Her stare is filled with the indifference of nature, red in tooth and claw. She likes a pet along the back, but if you turn your attention to an attractive book spine—even briefly—she'll be gone by the time you return your attention to her.
Bookstore cats exist to combat the threat of bookstore rats. Empress Elizabeth of Russia has been credited with starting the trend. In 1745, she issued a special decree in search of "'the best and biggest cats, capable of catching mice' to be sent to the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg to protect the treasures contained within," Jason Diamond wrote for Lit Hub. "Not long after... [European] governments started to pay libraries to keep cats in order to help bring down populations of book-loving vermin."
Lutton carries on this tradition. "Their main function is to keep mice out," she said. "So far, they've served only as a deterrent. They mostly just cheer us up! We have a cat in our lap when we're working, and we like to see people regress to 5 years old when they come in."