A small room, not much wider than a hall, with benches in the middle. A woman with long grey hair and multiple scarves sits, reading a thick volume. A couple of students mill about, pulling books from the shelves and replacing them, until they find ones they don’t put back. Quotes from famous poets, both deep and humorous, painted on the walls. It’s clean but not sterile, welcoming but not overwhelming. And it’s all poetry.
Soon enough, the room starts filling up, and the staff arranges chair and someone brings out a podium to the front of the room. There’s a growing sense of excitement; an award winning poet from out of town is reading here, at a room half the size of the rooms they usually fill. They’ve chosen this spot for it’s national cachet in the poetry scene, it’s intimacy, and the sense of community it engenders. When the lighting, seating, and set up is right, they take the podium and begin to speak.
After over ten years of writing and performing poetry, organizing festivals, curating event line ups of poets, I kind of hate it. Or rather, I’ve grown into a decidedly complicated relationship with the craft and it’s practitioners. There’s a lot there, as I’m sure there is for touring musicians, theater folk, dancers and more.
But the great things about Open Books, Seattle’s only all-poetry bookstore, is that there, it isn’t. It’s simple. At Open Books, my love for poetry can be uncomplicated again. Not that all the aforementioned ingredients aren’t there; they are. But since the shelves are organized alphabetically, surrealists rub up against new formalists, you can find some of the most famous poets of all time right next to your old writing TA’s first ever published collection. It’s an easy spot to get lost and browse for hours, discovering your new favorite writers, but it’s also possible to do a surgical strike, as I have many a time with fifteen minutes before the next 26. The staff is knowledgeable but never aloof, friendly, but will let you look around without disruption.
Opened originally by local writers John Marshall and Christine Deavel, Open Books was taken over a couple years ago by Billie Swift, whose largely kept the atmosphere intact, while increasing the number of readings and events there.
There are a total of three all-poetry bookstores in the country, which is a shame, as poetry tends to be underserved on bookstore shelves. Whether this is due to market demands or informs them is, once again, for another day. But even in a bookstore-heavy town like Seattle, it can be difficult to find the authors you want; Elliott Bay does a solid job, and a few used bookstore stalwarts like Arundel have fairly extensive sections; but those spots are limited by space and taste. That said, being surrounded exclusively by books of poems, you get a sense of the range of styles and content that the form can offer.
This is not to say you’ll be able to find every book of poetry ever made– or even currently for sale– at Open Books. But if they don’t have it, they can probably get it for you. And if they can’t, they can tell you who can. And if you don’t know exactly what you want, it’s a great place to find something. And if you thought you’d stopped liking poetry, it’s a good place to start again.