Independent Bookstore Series: University Book Store

University Book Store looks great for its age. Nearly 115 years old, the flagship University District store predates many of the classics on its shelves. It beat James Joyce’s Ulysses by 20 years and L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by a few months. For a centenarian shop, however, it feels eternally youthful thanks to a perennially new crop of fresh-faced students crossing paths with the wider community.

It is the Grande Dame of Seattle’s indie lit scene. It remains impressively current and coolmore Dame Helen Mirren, less Dame Edna.

“I hear people refer to it as THE Bookstore in all capitals. I love that!” says Louise Little, University Book Store CEO. “That says it all right there. We’re so many things to many people because we also offer textbooks, supplies and apparel, but at heart we’re THE book store.”

The store opened January 10, 1900, in a Denny Hall cloakroom on UW’s main campus. Following a fire, it moved to its current location on “The Ave” in 1924. Students scurry through the basement on a quarterly basis amassing supplies and precariously balanced towers of textbooks. The main and second floors are home to upwards of 160,000 trade-book titles for the general public. In total, the store isa breathtaking 89,200 square-feet of intellectual property. There are also satellite locations in Bellevue, Bothell, Renton, downtown Seattle and Tacoma.

“The life of the mindthat’s how we describe engaging with the greater community,” says Little. “I think we’re known for being a little bit more intellectual in our offerings, but we really do appeal to all ages and a variety of backgrounds.”

There is the distinct silhouette of academia. Few other general bookstores have entire sections devoted to Neuroscience and Eco-Architecture. Diehard bibliophiles always glance at the special-editions bookcase, a red-wood column reminiscent of a British phone booth. Book fans might spy an 1859 copy of John Milton or an autographed Stephen King. The event calendar bursts at the seams with around 500 readings annually and attracts heavyweights ranging from former U.S. Presidents to Nobel Prize winners and a who’s who of literary rock stars.

That said, the store’s enduring popularity is partially because it appeals to diverse audiences. While there is actually an “I Heard it on NPR” section, the MTV generation can snag a copy of Snoop Dogg Mad Libs. Local ties are heavily emphasized thanks to dedicated Northwest art, cookbook, history and travel sections along with a UW authors display. Upstairs, a clothesline is pinned with stuffed animals and picture books that entices the Sesame Street set.

Staff expertise also sets University Book Store apart. Many employees on the 290-person staff have worked there for decades. Little herself is a 34-year veteran who worked her way from cashier to CEO. Staff recommendations are as varied and knowledgeable as the faces behind the counter. They’re also passionate suggestions. One note implores, “Hey you! Yeah, you! Take this book home with you!”

“Online book competitors keep you in a bucket. You order one thing and it recommends something else because your propensity for something similar is higher. I’d like to think I’m not that predictable as a person,” says Little. “An independent bookseller can put forth a book or topic that challenges you in a different way, in the good sense that it opens your world to new and different things you didn’t know existed. I want to be surprised and given a sense of discovery.”

University Book Store not only stocks a cornucopia of books, it advocates for getting them published in the first place. Around five years ago, the store acquired an Espresso Book Machine (EBM). Nicknamed “Homer,” it could print self-published work, short runs, out-of-print volumes and more. Encased in plexiglass, customers could literally watch pages coming hot off the printer. Thanks to EBM, it was possible to find rare (and lengthy)  titles such as: my summer of magnified english* (a serious-tragic odyssey into the heart of celebration commemorating the centennial of Mark Twain’s death) *against the backdrop of a wamongo-sized oil spill by Michael Matewauk.

As of fall 2014, EMB services are no longer available, but the store remains committed to providing publishing support. They are transitioning into a relationship with an outside printing service. The book store will connect writers with editing, cover design services and more before referring them to publishing options. At the end of the day, the mission is to place books into eager, outstretched hands.

“I hear over and over again that people like the experience that a (physical) book provides. You read and interact on a deeper, more personal level when you’re holding a book as opposed to a two-dimensional, electronic reading device,” says Little.

“I’m absolutely hopeful and optimistic about the future of books. I don’t see them going away anytime soon.”

Pictured above: University Book Store on The Ave. Below: The University Book Store circa 1930. Photos courtesy of the University Book Store.