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Phinney Books
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The Seattle bookstore born out of a ‘Jeopardy!’ victory

Tom Nissley stands in front of the fiction section of his bookstore, Phinney Books, which he calls "Made-Up" (Photo by Curt Gerston)
LISTEN: How Jeopardy! changed the life of a Seattle man

When Seattle’s Phinney Books opened three years ago, I remember the neighborhood chatter. Who would open a small bookstore now? Amazon will surely crush it, just as it crushed Barnes & Noble and quaint, squeaky-floored bookstores across the country.

But the opening of Phinney Books was magical for its owner. In 2010, Seattle’s Tom Nissley was working at Amazon, in the books department.

“I had been there about 10 years,” Nissley said. “I had a good job, I liked it, I got to do a lot of fun stuff.”

But then he was selected to be a contestant on Jeopardy!

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“I’d watched the show,” he said. “I knew I was pretty good at that kind of stuff. I had no idea it would change my life.”

Nissley competed on Jeopardy three times and he performed, “Really well! Much to my surprise. I won eight times. At the time I was the third highest money winner in the history of the show.”

He walked away with a bank account full of Jeopardy winnings.

“About $340,000,” Nissley said. “Bizarre!”

Nissley quit Amazon. He took a family vacation, he wrote a book and then he accidentally found a new career.

“Almost three years ago, exactly, I heard that our neighborhood bookstore, a little store up on Phinney Ridge, was up for sale,” he said. “I had pretty much never considered owning a bookstore before, even though I knew the business pretty well. Partially because I know the business pretty well. It’s not an easy thing to make work. But I started talking to people and a lot of the booksellers in town were saying, ‘Actually, we’re doing pretty well.’ The more I looked into it, the more I couldn’t talk myself out of it and here I am.”

And that’s how Phinney Books was started.

“We’ve been open two and a half years,” Nissley said.

The Phinney Books community

Nissley says Jeopardy! changed his life and he loves being a part of the local community.

“I think, by nature, I’m a solitary reader/writer type and having a place like this kind of makes me into a bigger person, a better person,” he said. “It draws me out into the world. I remember, after the election, which was not a happy day for a lot of people around here, I had no idea how people would react. Especially that first week, people came in to buy books, but also just to talk. It was really kind of gratifying to have that position in the neighborhood. I’ve lived here forever but I haven’t known my neighbors in a way that I do now.”

And he says business is good. His former employer has not crushed him.

“I think coming from Amazon made me realize that I don’t really have to compete with them,” Nissley said. “I know what they do and if you want a book for 40 percent off, if you want that one-click experience, I’m not going to replace that. I offer something entirely different. I feel like I’m almost in a different business than they’re in. I don’t think about them very much. In a lot of ways, they’re not my competition.”

Nissley says, in general, he’s not a competitive person. He just likes trivia and knowledge and reading. He was lucky to be selected for Jeopardy! after applying only once and says the application process starts with a 50 question online test.

“If you watch the show and think you do pretty well and play at home, take the test,” he said. “It’s not that hard to do that first step and you never know. Once you’ve been on, it kind of comes out of the woodwork. You know, ‘I’ve been on,’ ‘My friend’s been on.’ The woman who just sold the fabric store down the street, she won two times. There’s a woman at the University Bookstore who won a couple times. It’s just regular people and people get on and they do well. If you think you might do well, then give it a try.”

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