Independent Bookstore Series: Chin Music Press

Chin Music Press

Chin Music Press

The hand-painted mural of an open book points visitors toward Chin Music Press’ new Pike Place Market shop. The accompanying inscription, Open Your Mind, is less of a command than an invitation to an artistic adventure.

Chin Music Press

The bookstore is nestled in a corner hallway of Pike Place’s “Down Under.” A wall of windows overlooking Western Avenue keeps the 675-square-foot-space awash in natural light. The crisscrossed, square panes spotlight the shop’s charming furbelows and personal touches. Origami creatures perch atop shelves. A maneki-neko raises its paw in greeting. Fabric swatches line baskets of books. The store’s guardian is the elegantly constructed Red King—a tabletop, paper Godzilla—who is the store’s self-appointed ambassador.

“The idea behind opening the store is to have a space to showcase our books, but also the creative process behind them and art connected to them,” says Bruce Rutledge, co-founder of Chin Music Press with his wife Yuko Enomoto.

The husband-and-wife team founded the Seattle-based press in 2002, and the first book hit shelves in 2005. The catalog numbers almost three dozen titles, all of them unique visions of both literature and aesthetics.

“This is a great book!” raves Rutledge as he picks up a copy of Jennifer Shaw’s Hurricane Story, her first-person account of being pregnant and fleeing New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. The story is told one line of text at a time, each accompanied by a photos of toys staging the narrative. “I got so excited when I first saw it. I think the book should do even better than it has. An exhibit space like this gives us a chance to really show people.”Chin Music Press

The night before the store’s mid-July opening, Enomoto teetered atop a stepladder posting all 47 of the book’s photographs on the wall. It is an eye-catching collage of color, heartbreak and whimsy that inevitably inspires visitors to buy it in book form. 

Hurricane Story is published under the press’ second imprint, Broken Levee Books, launched after Hurricane Katrina. They are conversation-starter books about troubles facing America. Chin Music Press loosely focuses on Asian themes, although there are more and more exceptions to the rule. Seattle poet Kate Lebo’s A Commonplace Book of Pie, about old-fashioned Americana and pie, published in 2013.

“It’s usually about the aesthetics. I want to organically go with it and define things after the fact,” says Rutledge of his publishing approach. “It’s all about that tingle at the base of your spine when someone gives you a piece of work. That’s why we came into this business.”

Visiting Chin Music press is a hybrid experience, like being in both a bookstore and an art gallery. Original artwork is displayed, every brushstroke visible. Visitors can feel the weight of letterpress plates used to print broadsides. Proofs of upcoming books are available to whet readers’ appetites. The neon, hot-pink edges of Enfu: Cute Grit—a comic-style, jade-pop inspired art book—jump out from across the room.

Wanderlust inspired Rutledge to move to Japan after college. It was either work on an Alaskan fishing boat or a take a teaching job in Asia. Initially not fluent enough to even buy a postage stamp, his brief sojourn turned into a 15-year stay. He worked as a journalist, English-language coach and eventually segued into literary translation. Immersing himself in Japanese literature was a revelatory experience.

“We’re sort of deprived in America in terms of world literature,” says Rutledge. “Japan has incredible access to world literature because so much is translated. I realized that if I could even be a little creek feeding into the river of literature, that would be a worthy life mission.”

Rutledge is dedicated to affordability both through the press and store. “I want to engage readers. I don’t need them to be rich.” He initially envisioned modeling the press on the mass-produced, inexpensive paperbacks of the 1970s. However, working with book designers Craig Mod and Josh Powell (creator of Red King Godzilla) forever altered the press’ journey.

“They made me consciously think about what makes a book worth being a book. We want to leave a lasting legacy for the printed book. We need to define what kind of books need to exist and what can be just a digital dump into a Kindle,” says Rutledge.

“I have a problem with renting ebooks. With ebooks, the setup is, I love this book and you should buy it, too. I love the sharing aspect of physical books, giving it to four or five friends, even if it’s not money in my pocket in terms of always selling new copies. Maybe that’s not the capitalist ideal, but it’s incredibly evolved socially.”

Rutledge wants to cultivate appreciation for Seattle’s literary community. A filmstrip-style panel of windows allows passersby to peek into the publisher’s office as they work. Event calendars for Elliott Bay Book Co. and Third Place Books sit at the door. Come fall, he hopes to host other small presses by featuring a different catalog monthly. It will also keep customers regularly visiting to see what is new.

“We’re honored to be a part of the local, literary ecosystem,” says Rutledge. “We all basically sink or swim together and we have to nurture each other. It’s funny that we’re in the same city as Amazon because that’s so different from their mentality.”

Chin Music Press does not translate literally between languages, but it’s an old term looping together ideas of idle conversation, eloquence and connection. It seems perfect for a store that lives between the worlds of publishing and book selling, the visual and textual, commerce and art, Godzilla and fresh flower bouquets.

“I already feel so at home here and it’s only day four. I love this place!” says Rutledge. “I hope we become one of those long-term, mainstay residents of the Market. One day people will talk about old, venerable Chin Music Press!”

All photos by Deanna Duff.