Independent Bookstore Series: Arundel Books

“What are you reading these days?”

Phil Bevis, owner of Pioneer Square’s Arundel Books, genuinely wants to know. His shop is home to ongoing conversations—ones that begin on the shelves, jump from the pages, carry between readers and travel out the door to be shared across time and space. In a sense, the walls really do talk.

“Books live with me,” Bevis says. “I read a lot, but I’m also always short of something to read, which is ironic. One reason I ask people if they’ve read anything good lately is because I’m looking for tips!”

Arundel is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary in Seattle with a relocation. Formerly housed in the basement of the historic Grand Central Building, this March the store reopened upstairs in the former home of Wessel & Lieberman Booksellers. It was an involuntary move involving the transfer of 80 tons of stock and costing well into six figures.

“Whether it was due exclusively to the tunneling process itself or the excavation of Bertha [Seattle’s perpetually-plagued, deep-bore tunneling machine] after it broke, the vibration and pumping of billions of gallons of water caused the building to drop two inches and into the water table,” Bevis explains. “Water was wicking up through the bricks. If we sold anything else—furniture, diamonds, puppies—it wouldn’t matter, but we’re basically shelving paper sponges around the walls.”

Sprouting mold necessitated an immediate move. Arundel will navigate the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) claims process in the hopes of recouping some costs. However, Bevis is less than optimistic given interactions with WSDOT thus far. “It’s one of those things where we’ve been served lemons and we’re trying to make lemonade,” he says.

Arundel is no stranger to change. This marks the store’s fifth location in Seattle. Thankfully, the store’s spirit is housed in its philosophy rather than any particular four walls. The motto, Books for Readers and Collectors, and its collection of over 40,000 titles means there is something for everyone. Bevis values ideas regardless whether they live in a mass-market paperback or first edition of Hemingway, Faulkner or Steinbeck. The shop has deep holdings in everything from science to technical fields, but is particularly known for its focus on the creative arts—literature, poetry, drama, visual arts and more. Arundel also boasts one of the nation’s largest literary broadside collections, at over 600. In-store gallery space showcases visual arts with 10-12 exhibits planned yearly.

“I like people who like books,” Bevis says. “A bookstore is one of the few places where it’s safe to have a conversation about who you are and what you’re interested in.”

That belief is more than just words. In August 2001, the F.B.I. served Bevis with a subpoena demanding over six years of records outlining customer purchases. Bevis refused. The matter was dropped, but legal expenses cost the bookstore 18 months of profit. “I don’t think it’s anybody’s business what you read or the questions you ask. I want to have a bookstore where people are free to inquire,” Bevis says.

Arundel protects ideas from start to shelf. Bevis first founded Arundel in 1984 as a small publishing company in Los Angeles. With a hand-operated Vandercook press, he set up shop in in the living room of legendary printer Harry Reese. Arundel has always maintained its publishing arm, but for the first time in its Seattle history, the current location will include an on-site printing press. By April, visitors will be able to watch a Vandercook in action. Workshops and artist residencies will be offered in the future.

“The new space will be a place not just where books are sold, but where books are conceived, created, edited, printed and published. You have to give people a reason to come to a bookstore these days because you can sit at home and buy stuff from your couch,” Bevis says.

Approximately 90 percent of Arundel’s business is via online and mail-order sales, which essentially pays for the brick-and-mortar store. But for Bevis, some discussions and experiences need to happen in actual space. In his student days walking UCLA’s Bruin Walk, he happened upon an outdoor reading by poet Charles Bukowski. A fellow young man, complete with black beret and Coke-bottle glasses, advised Bevis to, “Check it out, man! His stuff is at Papa Bach’s, man! It’s a bookstore, man!”

Bevis headed straight to Papa Bach’s Bookstore—the long-gone, counterculture hotspot and Bukowski hangout—and purchased copies of Bukowski’s Post Office and Women, which he spent all night reading. Decades later, Arundel was gifted Papa Bach’s wooden podium. Imbued with “mojo,” Arundel still uses it for events like the store’s 2015 reopening. It remains a platform for dialogue reaching from Bukowski to contemporary writers.

“People will come in and tell us we recommended a book or they found one in the store that changed their life. ‘I read that book and decided to change careers. I read that book and decided to get back into photography. I read that book and…'” Bevis says.

“It’s nice to have the sense that, on a good day and when you get it right, you can help make people happier, enrich and inspire their lives.” 

Photos by Annie Brulé