Seattle is the biggest literary city in the United States aside from New York City, where the publishing industry was founded and will remain until it dies. From the explosive growth of Amazon.com to the revived, relocated Elliott Bay Book Company to all the feisty readings series around town (the Breadline at Vermillion, Cheap Wine & Poetry at Hugo House, the conceptual SPLAB on Beacon Hill), Seattle is a city of readers and writers. We have dozens of great readings venues; a well-stocked library system with beautiful neighborhood branches; densely packed, vivacious bookstores; and an embarrassment of resources for aspiring authors, thanks to institutions like the Jack Straw Writers Program and Hugo House's many classes.
The one thing Seattle doesn't have is a literary movement, its own unique style. That's because our writers have been scattered around the city, trapped in monklike solitude for decades, too self-conscious (in that delightful writerly way) to talk openly about embarrassing, lofty topics like craft and goals and legacies. The thing we need, the way to bring Seattle's scene together, is a strong and diverse community of authors. The best place to build that community is a bar.
Seattleites spend an alarming, almost sickening amount of time talking about "building community," even though you can't "build" a community any more than you can "build" a home. A house is not the same as a home, and a neighborhood is not the same as a community. Even if you put all the pieces together by following the directions on the side of the box to the letter, you're not necessarily going to wind up with anything more than an empty structure.
Seattle has a dozen or so small communities of writers: the open-mic readers, some of whom have published chapbooks with Spankstra Press or another small publisher; the vibrant science-fiction community, with authors like Cherie Priest, Kat Richardson, Greg Bear, and Neal Stephenson; the emerging field of literary authors, including Ryan Boudinot, Jonathan Evison, and Maria Semple; the experimental authors who congregate around Doug Nufer, Rebecca Brown, and Nico Vassilakis; and the big names who float above it all like Sherman Alexie, Jonathan Raban, and Erik Larson.
Writing is a lonesome pursuit. It can often make writers feel so freakish that they need to remind themselves that other people are engaged in the same activity. I've seen this happen a thousand times before: When authors get together, they have their life's passions—writing and reading and books—in common. They find themselves opening up to each other immediately, often against their will. Though many dread these social interactions ahead of time, they almost always come away from the conversations with a new insight on writing and the writing life. The more often you get writers together, the more confident, productive, and informed the work becomes.
So here's what we need: a fairly large bar, nothing fancy, not too expensive. Open almost all the time. Maybe a typewriter here or there for ambience. Ratty books on shelves. Some sort of an area that can easily become a stage. Chairs. Tables. No TV, no Wi-Fi. No nattering blogs or flickering videos to distract from the words you're writing, speaking, or reading. A jukebox stuffed with Edith Frost, the Magnetic Fields, and the Pogues. That's about it for the hardware.
The bar should have a readings series to put butts in the seats. Because that sort of thing is hard to get off the ground, it should partner with a local institution that has a strong, busy readings schedule but could use a regular alternate venue for small-to-medium-sized readings. The bar's programmers should offer to take on a couple of the more adventurous book-related series in town, like the Bushwick Book Club (which is musicians reading books and writing new music in response to them), and maybe Naked Girls Reading (which is naked girls reading). The end result would look something like a combination of New York's KGB Bar and Vital 5's the Hideout, only (hopefully) more low-rent than either.
There should be events that are totally off-putting to the general public, like a once-weekly open-mic night and freewheeling conversations about how to incorporate more Oulipian obstructions into your fiction. Maybe a night where everyone gathers to determine once and for all whether Fitzgerald is total shit or the greatest writer ever. It should be the sort of place where literary magazines are born (and where literary magazines die) on a regular basis, where impromptu cartooning workshops happen on a large oak table in the center of the room while headphone-wearing zombies pound away on their unfinished manuscripts, alternating the pints of beer with mugs of bitter, greasy coffee to try to keep that always-elusive writing streak going for just an hour or two longer.
You could argue that writers already have it great in Seattle—can't they have meetings in the common areas of Third Place Books, or take classes at Hugo House, or form societies that meet after any one of the open mics that happen all around town? Yes, they can (and yes, they do). But if you were to give Seattle's writers and lovers of good writing one destination where they could gather casually at just about any hour of the day and night, a place where they could go to be alone and a place where they could know that they're not alone, great things would start to happen.
Does this sound pretentious to you? Good. Every community needs a place where its members can get wonky about their passions, where they can sound like total nerds without fear of other people rolling their eyes. For aspiring authors, there's enough eye-rolling everywhere else. They deserve a destination that welcomes mistakes and complaints and pretensions as a matter of course, because those are the venues where great ideas are born. Seattle writers need a place that feels like home, with all the comfort, irritation, and security that that word implies.