Not everyone knows this, but you don't have to be a student at University of Washington to shop at the bookstore in the Husky Union Building (HUB) in the center of campus. The HUB is packed with couches and comfy chairs and fireplaces and an ice cream shop (to the right in the image above) and a barbershop (to the left) and a Pagliacci and more.
But the reason this store is great is because of one guy: Nick DiMartino.
"I am doing everything I can to keep literature alive on campus," DiMartino told me when I stopped by the other day. "That's my real mission."
Keeping literature alive on campus—where everyone is walking around staring into their handheld Facebook feeds—involves curation, creativity, and personal attention. This store doesn't have a huge selection, but the selection it does have is thoughtful and engaging.
One section of the store is called Nick's Picks. Each month, DiMartino adds to the section whatever he thinks is the "best new book of the month." The most recent addition to Nick's Picks is Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad.
"It's won the National Book Award. It's won the Pulitzer Prize. It is one troubling, unforgettable reading experience. But it is also unstoppable reading," he says. "Wincing and yelping, cringing and gasping, I couldn’t put it down."
Nick's Picks has its own book club that meets on the last Monday of the month. The club is held in the cafe of the main branch of University Book Store, 4326 University Way NE, from 6 to 7 pm. The Underground Railroad's book club meeting happens May 29.
DiMartino showed me a few other things about the store in the HUB. My favorite was the section that used to be called "Classics," which he changed the name of because no one seemed to be interested in buying classics.
"I have chosen to call classics 'prize winners,'" he said.
"Does that work?" I asked, laughing.
"It's amazing how well that works."
"'Classics' sounds dull. It's not an exciting word. 'Prize winners' works for some reason," he said. "Winning seems to be an American value. I don't know why but that section works gangbusters now and it didn't used to."
We talked about his history with the store, beginning in 1970, after he graduated from UW in 1969 with a degree in English literature. He said, "I've been here long enough that I remember a lovely young Japanese gal came in and told me that I had introduced her mother to her father."
DiMartino has also written 18 books of his own, some of which are on the shelves. His work includes a four-volume gay fantasy called The Devil in Love.
He hosts another book club every Wednesday on Capitol Hill (115 15th Avenue E at 6 pm) to discuss queer books, and the May selection is something I've been dying to read: Insomniac City. It's a memoir by Bill Hayes about being the romantic partner of Oliver Sacks for the last six years of Sacks's life, from 2009 to 2015. According to the inside flap, Sacks "fell in love for the first time at age seventy-five."
The epigraph of Insomniac City is a quote from Sacks: "I don't fear death so much as I do wasting life."
Listening to how much writing and reading DiMartino packs into a single day started to make me feel like I was wasting my life. Two book clubs, plus writing 18 books of his own, plus running a bookstore? This guy is amazing.
The writing output alone is astonishing. How does he do it? He said he goes to bed early and gets up and writes from 2 to 6 am every morning. He's at the bookstore by 8 am.
As for the Insomniac City book club, because it meets throughout May, you're supposed to have read about a quarter of the book for the first book club, half of the book for the second book club, etc. I have the silent-reading party on the first Wednesday of the month, but I'm going to be there for the second meeting, on May 10. I've never really taken to book clubs, but I'm going to give this one a shot.
I asked if he happened to have a copy of Insomniac City there in the store, and he did, and sold me one.