When poet and poetry teacher Jane Wong first moved to Seattle she immediately paid a visit to Open Books, an all-poetry bookstore in Wallingford.
“It’s a super important place,” she said. “That was a great space for me to meet writers, a great place of just meeting of the minds.”
So it’s understandable that concern was raised when news broke that the owners of the “super important place” were retiring. After nearly 21 years, bookstore owners Christine Deavel and John Marshall are ready to close their chapter at the shop, and are hoping someone else can open a new one.
“I just turned 64,” Marshall said. “And I want to see what life is like not owning a bookstore.”
Marshall and Deavel live above the shop — they own the building. So their goal is to keep it open, and sell it to the perfect candidate.
“What we want to hear out of them is if they have bookstore experience because the bookstore industry is a very strange animal,” Marshall said. “If you don’t know it, it can be quite a steep learning curve.”
“If they know poetry well because people come in not knowing anything and asking questions; you’ve got to be able to talk,” he said. “Have energy and some money because there’s not a lot of money in Open Books.”
But business is good. When news of Marshall’s retirement first broke, most assumed that a small poetry bookstore would be closing because of financial reasons. After all, “Who buys poetry at a brick and mortar bookstore anymore?” But Marshall notes the last two years have been among the most successful in the shop’s history.
“People assume our customers are from the UW, by and large. That’s not true. We have customers who are Metro bus drivers, paralegals, doctors and the UW,” Marshall said. “Poetry is an art form that more people are interested in than people think are interested in.”
The fact that Seattle has an all-poetry bookstore is indeed very special.
“There are four of them now in the country,” Marshall said. “When we opened there was one, so we doubled the number and it has since doubled.”
Seattle’s poetry scene
Customer Jane Wong may not be surprised to hear about Open Books’ current success. She says Seattle’s poetry scene is large, diverse and thriving. And Open Books does a great job of catering to all tastes.
“They also have special things in there, like, for poet nerds, (such as) chapbooks and special edition stuff. It feels very curated, very careful,” Wong said. “And you know, there’s Dick’s burgers across the street and there’s tacos right over to the side. So to me, it’s like, ‘what else could you want?’ Gross, delicious snacks and then books.”
A lot of people might think a poetry bookstore is exclusive, snobby, something for the elite. But Wong and Marshal say the Open Books is for everyone.
Jane is the first person in her family to graduate from high school, and she now holds a Ph.D. in literature. her first book of poetry, “Overpour,” is due out soon.
“I think people are afraid of poetry because it doesn’t really give us immediate information,” Wong said. “Poetry asks you to add your own take on it, to experience it more than gain something from it.”
“So I feel like when people get nervous around poetry, it’s because they’re like, ‘I don’t know what that means.’ I don’t either!” she said. “And no one really does, and that’s okay. It’s okay not to get it, you’re not supposed to get it, you’re supposed to enjoy it for reasons that sometimes you can’t articulate.”
In about a week since word of his retirement got out, Marshal has already received 30 queries from people interested in buying the shop.
“People want to ‘Save Poetry’ in Seattle as though poetry needs saving,” he said. “Poetry is this ancient art form that Open Books cannot kill.”