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From its new Pioneer Square storefront, Open Books strives to become a center for Seattle’s poetry community

For a quarter of a century, Open Books: A Poetry Emporium operated out of the ground floor of a home in Wallingford. The space had been a hub for all the many spokes of the Seattle poetry community—from avant-garde visual poetry weirdos to garrulous spoken-word performers and the more austere MFA poetry crowd. The store has served as a launchpad for exciting Seattle poets like Quenton Baker and Don Mee Choi, and it has hosted memorial services and celebrations of life for local poets like Joan Swift and Madeline DeFrees whose passings left Seattle poorer.

For much of Open Books’ time as Seattle’s lone poetry-only bookstore, the shop felt immune to change. From pretty much the day it opened, it felt as though Open Books had always served Seattle’s literary community, and that it always would. But then in 2016, the shop’s founders, Christine Deavel and John Marshall, announced their retirement and local poet Billie Swift bought the business. And in 2020, Swift successfully weathered her first real crisis as she took Open Books’s stock online for the first time to serve her customers during the pandemic.

Another crisis arrived late last year, when Deavel and Marshall decided to finally sell the Open Books property, uprooting the store. Swift ran a successful $50,000 crowdfunding campaign to cover costs of the move, and just in time for National Poetry Month, Open Books has opened its doors in its new Pioneer Square location, in the Good Arts Building at 108 Cherry St.

“I saw this space on Craigslist and saw that there were art studios in the building,” Swift explains, so she suspected the landlord might be bookstore-friendly. Until recently, the storefront had belonged to a tailor who moved elsewhere in the neighborhood, “and the timing of his move coincided with exactly when we were looking for a spot.”

As talks with the potential landlord commenced, Swift brought a few poets to the new space to feel it out because “I didn’t know if I was missing something. And then they came and looked at it with me and we all were just kind of beside ourselves.”

It really does seem almost too good to be true: Open Books, impossibly, somehow feels even more historic than ever. Taking in the exposed brick and cedar beams of the new space, longtime Seattleites who still miss the Elliott Bay Book Company’s original Pioneer Square location are likely to feel a welcome flush of déjà vu.

“Our previous space had about 1,000 square feet of floor space and this one has 650,” Swift explains, but the new store somehow feels larger than the Wallingford location. “I loved that space and yet it was definitely a narrow corridor. I’m going to miss it, but it was a different experience than what I’m hoping this will be.”

The new floor plan is more fulsome, with shorter shelves displaying half-price poetry books and titles by local authors at the front of the store expanding out into panoramic wall-sized bookshelves. But the magic of the new location isn’t just about moving a few bookshelves around: Open Books also rents two rooms on the ground floor that Swift hopes to turn into active community spaces.

One of those rooms, The Parlor, is a tastefully appointed drawing room with a small conference table, a collection of taped poetry readings, and sheafs of old poetry journals and chapbooks. Swift has already started booking poetry classes for the room, but it’s perfectly sized for book clubs, writing groups, or just places for people to come and read poetry to each other.

In the back of the building is a more utilitarian room with shelves of paper, tape and scissors. “We’re calling this the Print Shop, and people can come and print chapbooks and zines in a creative space,” Swift says. She’s envisioning a kind of makerspace for poets, where groups can block out time to work on special projects like literary journals or poster campaigns.

“What I’m hoping with both of the spaces,” Swift says, “is to give people ways of being somewhere else in a way that feels good.”

Open Books has been slowly reopening in its new space every month. Swift says that “with the pandemic, it didn’t seem like the right time to do a big grand opening party,” but it’s easy to envision the store packed full of people on one of Pioneer Square’s huge First Thursday Art Walks with a reading in the main space, an artist reception in the Parlor, and a silk-screening demonstration in the Print Shop.

The space has all the makings of a bustling community center at the heart of Seattle’s literary community. The only question now is whether people will show up. Swift is hopeful. The Wallingford Open Books was on a major thoroughfare in one of the least pedestrian-friendly stretches of Seattle. As she was setting up the new store, Swift says, “I already heard so many people walking by talking about how excited they are that there’s going to be a bookstore. I can tell that there will be a ton more foot traffic.”

Swift is taking the opportunity to experiment with the store’s formula: For the first time, Open Books is carrying a few items that aren’t poetry books or magazines. The shop carries a small selection of blank books and journals, and they’re also selling Seattle poet Michelle Peñaloza’s handmade chunky earrings, which feature a vast array of colors, textures, and tiny representations of cats and boba tea. “I found great joy in those earrings throughout the pandemic,” Swift says, and she thinks they’ll help draw in passersby.

Sometimes at Open Books, casual browsers will recoil when they realize that they’re in an all-poetry bookshop. Swift thinks that moment is an invitation to a conversation. “I love that response,” she says, because “often times, we can help them find something that they love,” even if they’ve never bought a book of poetry in their adult lives. In the new space, Swift says, “I think there’s going to be a lot more of that.”

What are Open Books customers reading?

Open Books owner Billie Swift says that one of the biggest bestsellers the store has seen is “Customs,” the sophomore collection by Solmaz Sharif. The title alludes to both the traditions that the Iranian American poet grew up with and the dehumanizing bureaucratic process of arriving in a new country.

Open Books runs a book-subscription service that mails outstanding new poetry collections to yearly subscribers on a monthly or bimonthly basis. The most recent selection in the program is a gorgeously illustrated book published by up-and-coming Olympia press The 3rd Thing which features two prominent Seattle poets, Paul Hlava Ceballos and Quenton Baker. Baker’s contribution, “We Pilot the Blood,” is a startling erasure poem extracted from US Senate documentation of a slave ship revolt in 1841 (one almost entirely blacked-out page only reveals the words “they/could/not/kill/the/ sunrise/in/me.”) and Hlava Ceballos’s “Banana [ ]” similarly mines the historic record to tell a harrowing story of labor, exploitation, colonization and violence centering around the banana trade.

Kary Wayson, a beloved Seattle poet who joined Open Books as a bookseller this year, recently checked out Daisy Fried’s collection “The Year the City Emptied.” Fried started to translate the works of Baudelaire into English, “and then she just took off and started doing her own versions of him. I don’t know Fried’s other work, really, but this book brought me to tears,” Wayson says.

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