Poetry lives off the page at Open Books: A Poem Emporium. Verses are painted on the white walls of the inconspicuous, Wallingford shop; Wallace Stevens and Gertrude Stein loom large. Over 10,000 titles line the shelves and visitors often kneel and read on the floor as if in prayer. An antique typewriter eavesdrops from the front window, ready to catch inspiration in the air.
Now in its 18th year, Open Books is one of only three poetry-exclusive bookstores in the nation. Folks grabbing burgers nearby at Dick’s Drive-In often don’t realize they’re within sight of a literary landmark—a 500 square-foot space tucked underneath a residential house. Whether fans from afar or locals, many patrons come not only for the poets on the shelves, but the ones behind the counter, husband-and-wife owners John Marshall and Christine Deavel.
“The store shapes our days in ways that are incredibly stimulating and nourishing. We have so much around us that we love, including each other,” says Deavel.
Marshall and Deavel are published poets themselves and Deavel won the 2012 Washington State Book Award for poetry. Like many independent bookstores, much of Open Book’s success is rooted in a sense of community. There are no hired employees. Customers are guaranteed a warm greeting, often by name, and insightful reading recommendations from the owners.
“There is a percentage of customers who definitely come back because we recommend a book they enjoyed that they wouldn’t have found on their own,” says Marshall.
In recent years, bookstores have faced an uphill battle against megastore competitors. Open Books remains viable by embracing its poetry niche and offering what others overlook. They are stocking an increasing amount of used books, titles from small publishers and even limited edition, handset publications.
“The micro presses are rising up and there are more people doing one-off projects,” says Marshall. “Those activities are of interest to the youth culture. Making it available to people is another way to distinguish yourself as a bookstore.”
Many stores primarily focus on newer titles, but Open Books curates a mixture of current titles and backlist, such as classics that no longer sell in large quantities. It’s good business—poetry enthusiasts always find what they want—but it’s also a philosophical decision.
“We offer an extensive backlist because it’s important to see the history of the art form all in one place,” says Deavel. “All poetry speaks to other poems and we want to recognize and honor that.”
In that vein, Open Books is launching an original event series on October 22. In addition to presenting around 40 readings annually, the new Poetry in Conversation program will focus on titans of poetry past. It’s an opportunity to revisit the masters and evaluate their contemporary impact. The series will be quarterly and commences with William Carlos Williams.
The couple’s dedication to make poetry a living experience also extends to their partnership with Seattle Arts & Lectures (SAL). The SAL Poetry Series hosts readings and events with the biggest, most beloved names: Rita Dove, Sharon Olds, W.S. Merwin, Robert Pinsky. Open Books has been the official bookseller since the program’s launch in 2000. For the upcoming season, they will step onstage to present their own work on March 19, 2014. They’re also collaborating on a brand new piece specially written for the event.
“Seattle is a special place and we’re very touched,” says Deavel. “To me, it’s less about being up at the podium and more about being part of a community – the community of people who’ve read before and the community of people listening who’re interested in taking part of the art in the air.”
Embracing poetry is a lifestyle for Marshall and Deavel. During quiet moments, they browse the shop themselves, gently thumbing through favorites and sharing passages with each other. At night, they take turns reading out loud—their “bedtime” stories.
“We work together and that’s been really sweet. Sharing it has been a huge part for me. I can’t imagine this happening without each other,” says Deavel.
Open Book fans can’t imagine the experience without them either.
Open Books: A Poem Emporium, 2414 North 45th Street, openpoetrybooks.com
Christine Deavel and John Marshall, photo by Rebecca Hoogs.