(Phinney Books hosts its first author reading tonight at 7:30 pm. The reading is free.)

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The fiction section at Phinney Books is decorated with a sign reading Made Up. The rest of the store, of course, is True.
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  • The fiction section at Phinney Books is decorated with a sign reading "Made Up." The rest of the store, of course, is "True."

When author and Jeopardy! champion Tom Nissley opened Phinney Books earlier this year, he knew he would be operating on a steep learning curve. He's always worked with books—he's written about them at The Stranger and at Amazon.com, and in his own excellent The Reader's Book of Days—but he's never co-owned a bookstore before. And so as he's entering into his first Christmas season, is he facing any surprises? "The most overwhelming thing is the receiving," Nissley says. "Every day, we’re selling tons of books and that means every day I have to bring books back in," so a good portion of his day at Phinney Books is spent opening boxes from book distributors, entering books into inventory, and then shelving them again. Unlike a large retailer like University Book Store or Third Place Books, Phinney Books doesn't have a dedicated receiving room. "We have eight square feet that’s not on the showroom floor," Nissley explains, and so the unboxing of books "all happens behind the counter in a noticeable and not quite tidy way."

Milos shelf talker for Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs.
  • Courtesy Phinney Books
  • Milo's shelf talker for Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs.
But even as Nissley's going through Christmastime growing pains out in public, he's made some smart additions to his beautiful little shop that other booksellers should be emulating. The first and simplest addition to his shelves is an interesting twist on a traditional bookselling tool. If you shop at Elliott Bay Book Company or other independent stores, you're familiar with shelf talkers, those handwritten recommendation cards that hang on the shelf underneath books. Phinney Books allows its customers to write their own shelf talkers, making the shelves of the bookstore a community space. "We’re just a small place compared to Elliott Bay, where there’s this great staff of readers who can fill up all the shelves with shelf talkers," Nissley says."I'm very happy to give the store over to other voices than mine, and to not just make it an echo chamber for the books that I love." For Christmas, Nissley took things a step further and asked local authors to list a book they want to receive for Christmas and to list one book they're giving. (The list, which includes authors like Maria Semple and Ken Jennings, can be found at Phinney's site.) His favorite customer recommendation was written by a first-grader named Milo for the new Mo Willems book Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs. On the card, which you can see to the right of these words, Milo writes, "I love the part where she ets the pudding." Nissley loves that unbridled enthusiasm. "That is absolutely the best part of that book," he says.

Tonight, Phinney Books hosts Dock Street Salon, its first real author reading in partnership with new local publisher Dock Street Books. The free event will include readings with Ryan Boudinot, Charles Finn, and Boise author Christian Winn, whose very good collection of short stories, Naked Me, was recently published by Dock Street. The readings at Phinney Books will be monthly and feature an array of local and visiting authors; Dock Street's Dane Bahr has already lined up local authors Elissa Washuta, Peter Mountford, and Claire Dederer for future Salons. Nissley admits that with so many reading series happening around town, it's going to be tough to distinguish the Dock Street Salon as its own thing, but he thinks a reading helps make a bookstore "a little more alive," and he's looking forward to keeping things casual. "We’ll have the books for sale and signing, but you know, the readers will do 15 or 20 minutes each and we'll just really emphasize the readings. I doubt there’ll be a Q&A. That’s the show."

Of all his new programs, Nissley is maybe most excited about his new subscription program, Phinney By Post. Every month of the year, Phinney Books staff will select a book to mail to subscribers; six months out of the year, the books will be fiction, the other half they'll be non-fiction. (Local subscribers can get a significant discount if they opt to pick the books up in-store.) "I’m going to try to make it as eclectic as possible," Nissley says. "The biggest coup as a bookseller is when you have a customer who you know has read a ton of stuff and has interesting taste and you can find something they love." That's the goal with Phinney by Post, which Nissley says a lot of people are buying as a Christmas gift for readers in their lives. In prospective titles, he's "looking for that sweet spot of both awesomeness and obscurity so we can both please and surprise our subscribers." Nissley may be new at the bookselling business, but he's captured the mission statement in a nutshell.