Tacoma’s best independent bookstore is also among its quirkiest and most comfortable hangouts.
"Originally founded by King Ludwig I as a gift to [his mistress] Lola Montez, King’s Books was painstakingly moved to Tacoma in the late 20th century.”
That’s what the bookstore’s Web site says, anyway. John Schoppert, one of the owners, was a gravedigger, which career was ended by gout. Pat McDermott, the other owner, moved for a time to Wisconsin in hopes of becoming … (wait for it) … a cow. The store’s events coordinator, sweet pea (yes: little “s,” little “p”), honed his sparkling personality when he was the world’s youngest Wal-Mart greeter. All this according to “About Us” on kingsbookstore.com.
King’s Books is located in the Stadium District, with views of the Tacoma Dome down the hill and the bustling shipyards on the water’s edge. When one enters the store one is likely to be greeted not only by sweet pea, a young man with a wiggly scrum of hair atop his head — à la Kenny G — but by two cats, as well. Harriet and Miko, it is said, are the driving force behind book sales here. “Harriet is a mean salesperson,” says sweet pea, showing an expansive gift for the anthropomorphism of felines. “She invariably gets customers to buy armloads of books.”
”Armloads Are Us,” could be the store’s motto. Books. The place is stuffed with ‘em. The mural painted on the side of the building says it all: “Almost a square block of books.” Whether the questing buyer is interested in theology or mysteries, travel writing or aviation, political science or sports, he has a good chance of finding what he’s looking for amid the 150,000 books King’s Books has on hand. Bookcases are a literary maze, easy and fun to get lost in. In the rare-book room is a volume on Hawaiian legends. On a table near the back of the store sits The Love Poems of Rumi, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and a book about Northwest landscaping. Chairs are inviting; old rugs upholster the floor. Maps line the walls and in the far corner is a grouping of paintings on velvet: an owl, a crying boy in a pink coat, bullfighters.
It’s not the books that are the most interesting feature of the store, though. It isn’t the merchant cats, the furnishings and decor or even sweet pea, who says that he got his name from “a crazy girl in high school” and that he’s sticking with it. It’s the events that take place here and the connections the King’s Books crew is making with the local arts community at large — and in particular with letterpress printers and small presses — that make this a place you want to return to so often.
Probably the biggest event of the year is scheduled to coincide with Banned Books Week in late September. This nationwide “celebration of the freedom to read” is a program of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the American Library Association and other organizations. King’s Books does its part by scheduling a wide array of activities for young and old. The Tempest Lounge Book Club reads nothing but banned books. Story time for kids means reading aloud such putatively subversive titles In the Night Kitchen, Heather Has Two Mommies, and Daddy’s Roommate. Last fall, the store hosted a panel discussion on censorship and intellectual freedom. And King’s Books screened two films, one about censorship (The Seven Minutes) and one that faced censorship (Ulysses, based on the James Joyce novel). There was also a lively discussion about freedom of press with David Zeeck, executive editor of The News Tribune, and Bruce Johnson, a media lawyer with Davis Wright Tremaine. Banned Books Week for 2007 takes place from September 29 to October 6.
March is Small Press Month at King’s Books (letterpress artwork covers the walls where there aren’t velvet paintings) and sweet pea gathers the best letterpress printers in the Tacoma area. Last year Springtide Press, Hoosegow Press, Beautiful Angle, May Day Press, Notta Pixie Press and ilfant press all made it into the bookstore to showcase their talents.
Jessica Spring (see profile in City Arts, Nov./Dec. ’06) is a letterpress printer who has had a long relationship with King’s Books, creating posters and cards for the store. The folks at beautifulangle.com are guerrilla artists, creating beautiful graphics (that do not market or promote anyone or anything) and slapping them up around town for the delight of passers-by. These are among the printers who take part in what King’s Books calls its wayzgoose. Definition, courtesy of Webster’s Collegiate: “An annual feast of the persons employed in a printing office.” No food is served at King’s Books, still there’s plenty to dine on for lovers of books, book arts and fine printing.
“We’re the only new and used independent bookstore in town,” says sweet pea, “and we strive to be a community center.” Many local organizations hold meetings in the store, the space provided to them at no charge. King’s Books holds spelling bees, book auctions and trivia contests. “We’re progressive and liberal and have a strong affinity for the arts,” adds sweet pea, stating what is obvious but nonetheless noteworthy. And indeed the arts do come alive within the walls of King’s Books. Walk into the store on practically any given day and you’ll find something interesting going on. Watch out, though, for Harriet. She’ll have you buying a raft of books before you notice she’s a cat.
Photos by Kristin Giordano