Open Books: Seattle’s Thriving Bookstore for Poets

This interview by Michael Dylan Welch with J. W. Marshall and Christine Deavel of Open Books: A Poem Emporium was first published in Poet’s Market 2009 (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2008), pages 17–23, in a slightly shorter version. This interview also appeared online at Shortcovers. For its appearance here, I’ve added a few questions and answers that were cut from the original publication, as indicated below.

 

Seattle is a city where more than half the adult population has a college degree, where the city’s new library is a stunning architectural wonder, and where a nationally known librarian, Nancy Pearl, has her own action figure, complete with shushing index finger. Seattle even tops the country in number of bookstores per 10,000 people. In short, Seattle is a city that loves books and loves to read. So it’s no wonder that Seattle boasts a poetry-only bookstore, one of only two in the country (the other is Grolier’s, in Cambridge, Massachusetts) [now three, since Innisfree Poetry Bookstore and Café opened in January 2011 in Boulder, Colorado]. Indeed, Open Books: A Poem Emporium is one of the country’s greatest poetry treasures—a place that poet Peter Pereira has called a “sacred site.”

        Open Books is located on a slight hill at 2414 N. 45th Street in a semi-residential area of Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, just west across the I-5 freeway from the University district. There’s a gas station, grocery store, and a famous burger joint named Dick’s just down the street, intermingled with single-family homes. The store carries 9,000+ carefully selected titles, all poetry or poetry-related. Visitors could spend days perusing it all, yet the owners know much of their stock and welcome questions. Open Books is also a hangout for the local poetry community, where it’s easy to talk with other store visitors because you know you share a common passion. What’s more, locally or even nationally known poets are likely to walk into the store while you’re browsing. It’s a place where you want to listen in on other conversations because of the poetry news or gossip you’re likely to hear.

        One factor that helps Open Books thrive is the Pacific Northwest’s rich poetry tradition. Theodore Roethke casts the longest shadow, having influenced other notable poets with current or past Seattle ties, including James Wright, Carolyn Kizer, David Wagoner, and Richard Hugo (Seattle’s renowned literary arts center is named for Hugo). Denise Levertov was also prominent here in her last years, and Heather McHugh, Richard Kenney, and Linda Bierds at the University of Washington are also well known. Jim Harrison has called Copper Canyon Press in nearby Port Townsend the best publisher of poetry in America. Joshua Beckman of Wave Books is a recent Seattle transplant, and nearby San Juan Islander Sam Green was just appointed as the first poet laureate of Washington State. Much of the current poetry populace regularly beats a path to Open Books.

        But what makes Open Books tick? It’s the dedication and generosity of its husband-and-wife owners, J. W. Marshall and Christine Deavel, who founded the store in 1995. They make visitors feel part of the community, and they themselves attend numerous readings and events at other venues around Seattle, sometimes even reading their own work. And through it all, despite the seeming folly of running an independent bookstore, let alone one focused on poetry, their small but vibrant enterprise is thriving—and much loved. This talk with John and Christine reveals some of their secrets and shows how they’re dedicated to running their unique store—and quietly making a mark with their own poetry.

 

Contrary to national trends and what the National Endowment for the Arts would have us believe about the decline of books and reading, Seattle has been cited as having more readers per capita than any other city in the country. Do you think it’s because of the rain?

 

JWM: Seattle is definitely a literate city. We have the wonders of nature all around us, but the weather really is conducive to staying indoors for several months of the year. I think also the city has a well-educated populace, and some large employers attract educated folk, paying them pretty well. And maybe something in the western migration mindset still lingers, a willingness to seek adventure, to engage curiosity. Reading is a natural outlet for that kind of mind.

 

Is having such a strong local concentration of highly educated people and dedicated book lovers part of the Open Books success story? What makes the store work in Seattle where it might not in other cities?

 

JWM: I’m not sure that a poetry-only bookstore couldn’t work in most, if not all, major American cities. It seems to me more people are interested in poetry, actually interested enough to buy and read books, than is generally imagined. I grew up here, arriving in 1959, when I was seven, so while I love Seattle, I may not be able to see what sets it apart. Aren’t all cities like this? But what makes Open Books work in Seattle is, I think, a combination of our willingness to listen to, and learn from, and engage our customers, and our continued love for the art form of poetry. We still get excited by some books and some writers, and our customers appreciate that our interest is not solely in the sales potential of the books. That said, we need to sell books to keep the store open and we make no secret of it. We are involved in a business, not some communal experience of the bliss of poetry.

 

CD: Unromantic a fact as it is, the price of real estate also makes a difference. The book business operates on a fairly small margin, making it difficult to hold on if you are in an expensive city. We were able to find a good store location before prices leapt in Seattle. It might be more challenging were we to start out here now. Still, compared to New York City or San Francisco, I imagine a marginal business like ours has an easier go of it here.

        Also, Seattle is a tourist destination, and we benefit from folks who come to ride the ferries, see the mountains, and stop by the poetry-only bookstore. We could not exist on our Seattle customers alone. We also ship to those folks, and to people who have never set foot in the bookstore but have learned about us through friends, articles, or our website.

 

How does Open Books survive in the face of competition, volume buying, and price cutting from the chain bookstores?

 

JWM: The two of us know poetry. That sets our store apart from others, particularly the large chains and Internet monsters. I had a guy come in the store once looking for a book by a woman named Gold that had something to do with cells. A computer database, given this information, might have come up with some books for him to look over, but I figured he meant The Gold Cell by Sharon Olds and was right. We have been selling books for twenty years, and reading poetry closely for a lot longer than that, so our store of knowledge is pretty good and our brains are still supple enough to make some sharp connections.

        In this age of price being the marketplace god, we don’t discount the price of books. We do include used books in our inventory, which usually cost less than new books. As for volume buying, that is meaningful only if you sell a large number of whatever title you buy in large numbers. The beauty of our store is the breadth of choices, another factor that sets us apart from other stores. Generally, some people are willing to pay a touch more for a book than they would from a discounter, knowing they benefit from our degree of expertise. And some people like helping the store stay in business, too.

 

CD: We try very hard to maintain a vast and varied stock. I like to think that the store is agendaless, except to stock as much poetry as possible. We can’t have everything—there’s not enough room—but we want our shelves to have breadth, from tiny chapbooks to bestsellers; books published decades ago and those hot off the press; a variety of languages and aesthetics. Poetry is a big tent, and we want the store to reflect that.

        I would also add that we run a pretty spare and, some might say, quirky operation. We have no employees—the person who orders the books is also the one who cleans (occasionally) the toilet. It definitely helps that we’re committed to each other as well as the store. Those late nights working on the newsletter are done together in the house we share. We each understand the other’s poetry mania. And our customers, the many who’ve hung with us, understand that for us to stay with it, we need to not burn out, which means that we cannot offer the extensive hours that a chain bookstore would, and that we close the store occasionally to get away for a few days.

 

Who are some of the more prominent Seattle poets of the past and present? Is their influence on the community part of what makes Open Books possible?

[This question and its answers were omitted from the interview’s original appearance. With permission from J. W. Marshall, some of the following response was added to the introduction.]

 

JWM: If I begin to name names, I’ll forget someone and feel like a fool. Oh well, let’s risk. Theodore Roethke is probably the most prominent of the ghosts around here. He influenced James Wright, Carolyn Kizer, David Wagoner, Richard Hugo, and countless others while he was alive. And they have gone on to exert their influences. Denise Levertov was a fixture in Seattle the last years of her life, and her contribution to the poetry community is large. I also admire some less well-known poets from this region. The late Robert Sund, who wrote terrific poetry grounded in the Northwest, was a student of Roethke’s. And Laura Jensen, a wonderfully imaginative writer still writing today, has had three full-length collections of poetry published that may be hard to find but are well worth finding.

        Then there are the current aesthetic communities of poetry in Seattle. I’m happy that we include among the recent transplants in our midst Joshua Beckman, poet and the publisher of Wave Books, whose enthusiasm for poetry and talent as a poet are impressive. There are several well-known poets, Heather McHugh, Richard Kenney, Linda Bierds, to name three, at the University of Washington, and Seattle has a vibrant group of experimental writers, including John Olson who is getting some attention nationally. Sam Green, too, in 2008, has become the first poet laureate of Washington State.

 

CD: Golly, there are lots of writers of some renown here—John’s mentioned just a few, and they certainly give vibrancy to the poetry community. But there are also many, many writers in Seattle whom most people would not have heard of but who are crucial in the sustaining of poetry culture here. This is, I think, an open and appreciative city for the arts.

 

Please describe Open Books. How do you have publications arranged? And would you want a bigger space, perhaps?

 

JWM: It is a relatively small space, long and narrow, about 450 square feet. The cash register is near the front door and we greet pretty much everyone who comes in. Across the register is a display of recently received books and a cabinet of rarer books—first editions, some signed. We have a poetry-community bulletin board on one side and a display of sale books on the other; then the store gets a little wider with bookcases along all the walls. We have new and used books arranged together by author moving alphabetically around the room. The last four sets of shelves have anthologies, arranged by focus—meaning the haiku anthologies are together, the women’s anthologies are together, that kind of thing. We also have displays of chapbooks and one display with magazines, mostly local.

        As for wanting a bigger site, this store is perfect as it is. But a fantasy arrangement would have the store located in a larger building, with parking, which also housed a café with a liquor license, and a theater space for readings.

 

CD: But that is definitely a fantasy! It is indeed an intimate space, but I like to think that’s part of its charm. And it’s manageable (more or less) at this size. We are trying not to be foolish about what we can do.

 

What advice would you have for poets and small-press publishers who struggle to sell and distribute their work?

 

JWM: I try to point out to fledgling poets that all writers start out, and most remain, as local writers. That doesn’t necessarily mean writing about locale, but the community you live in will be your basis of support. Those are the people who are likely to come hear you read or who will buy your poetry.

        That’s the way to think about publishing, too. Begin with local magazines. And read them, don’t just submit your poems to them. Attend readings whether or not you take part. Your poetry will improve through studying others. And, of course, read up a storm. Read everything. If you like a poem, figure out why. If you don’t like poem, figure out why. Talk to other people who are enthusiastic about poetry. Thinking about all writing, about what works and what doesn’t work, is fine exercise for the creative mind.

        I guess what I’m saying is don’t let the act of making your work public become your highest priority. Study the craft. Enjoy it. Read and write, stay focused on the art, and associate with others who are into that too. Somehow making the work public will happen.

        What I’ve said about the poet’s role is true for publishers, too. Fledgling small press publishers almost have it harder. It’s easy, given some money, to get books printed. Getting them into the public’s hands, and getting the public to want them in their hands, is not easy. Publishing poets whose work is known in a community is the best thing you can do. Community is vital, both geographically and aesthetically. Develop relationships with bookstores and reviewers and the poetry-buying public at large. And remember, no one owes you anything. And perhaps they don’t share your vision of great work. Oh well. Find your audience and treat them well. With perseverance, you may find yourself enjoying your life as a publisher. I’d suggest not setting out to become New Directions; set out to publish some writers who deserve publishing. Focus on the art form, including the art of book design, and study what those publishers you consider to be successful are doing.

        The thing to keep in mind, both for poets and small-press publishers, is that there is no winning or losing. Engage in the process of creating, which is truly its own reward.

 

CD: I would encourage fledgling poets and publishers to learn as much as possible about the book business. If you hope to have a bookstore stock your book, you would be wise to know—in advance of approaching a bookseller—what to expect and what you want to offer. As with writers seeking out other writers to listen to and talk with, small press publishers in particular are well served by talking with others in their community. Community is key in the world of poetry, I think!

        I would also encourage a web presence. It needn’t be elaborate. That’s how I’m tracking down some interesting small presses I hear about by word of mouth. And certainly there are a number of ways to publish work online. That eliminates the struggle of distribution, but it also eliminates the wonderfulness that is a book.

 

Does good poetry always rise to the top?

[This question and its answer were omitted from the interview’s original appearance.]

 

CD: If I can get my hands on a book of what I think is good poetry, then it has risen to the top. A healthy, vibrant, diverse publishing community keeps challenging, satisfying, invigorating poetry of all kinds readily available to the reading community. I’m not sure there is a top or a bottom to that. Just in or out of print.

 

How would you describe your own approaches to poetry, and how do you balance that with a need to be somewhat “agnostic” in support of varying genres and perspectives—or “agendaless,” as one of you said earlier? Are there some titles or types of poetry that you simply won’t stock?

 

CD: My job as a bookseller is not to have everyone read what I read. It’s to help people navigate their reading lives in ways that are satisfying to them. In the process, I learn much from others, a true boon. The longer I’ve been reading and listening to and writing poetry, the more I can find to appreciate in all sorts of writing. The perfect poem is rare; we have to take our pleasures where we can.

        I don’t think we would rule out any particular type of poetry. We have been known to resist poetry books written by celebrities and published by mega-publishers, but even there we don’t have a rule. We have limited space, so we make what we hope are wise judgments, not only about what will eventually interest at least one customer, but also what just feels right to have on the shelf.

 

In addition to running the store, you also have your own poetry careers. John, in 2007 you won the Field Poetry Prize from Oberlin College, a prestigious honor. In March of 2008, Oberlin University Press published Meaning a Cloud, your first full-length poetry collection. What did winning this prize mean to you, and how has it affected your poetic career?

 

JWM: Winning the Field Poetry Prize meant a great deal to me. It’s lovely to think I have a book that potentially has national distribution and review attention. I like many of the poems, love some of them, and now they have their chance on a larger stage.

        That book is a lesson in perseverance. Field magazine was one of my favorites literally decades ago, starting probably in the early 1980s. I sent them poems since I liked their taste, and was rejected. I tried every so often for years because I continued to read and admire the poems they printed, and the books they published, both in translation and by American poets. Then, nearly twenty years after my first rejection from them, they chose three poems for publication. So I tried their book contest, my first attempt with a manuscript, and was a finalist. I sent the magazine more poems and hit with another, so I gave my manuscript a major tweaking and sent again, two years after being the finalist. This time it hit. I am extra pleased to be published by Oberlin because I have retained such respect for the magazine and the books they’ve published.

 

Christine, your work has appeared in numerous journals, including The American Poetry Review, Fence, The Iowa Review, Ploughshares, Talisman, and Volt. In 2005, LitRag Press published your book Box of Little Spruce. What’s next for you?

 

CD: I am a slow writer, often quiet for months, and even slower at pursuing publication. I’ve been grateful to be able to participate in the local poetry community, which has often spurred me to write. I continue to be amazed and buoyed by the generative power of artistic dialogue. While publication either on the page or the stage has been a gratifying part of my writerly life, my deepest satisfaction comes from the writing process itself, which is mysterious and invigorating—and at times frustrating and frightening. It’s a journey that starts out in the unknown and ends somewhere that I hope will feel inevitable to me, and maybe a reader. There’s no journey like it, at least for me.

 

How did the two of you meet, and what keeps you together—in addition to poetry? Are you ever poetically competitive with each other?

 

JWM: Though we each have a degree from the University of Iowa, we met here, in Seattle. We were introduced to each other by a mutual friend at a concert. She thought we would hit it off and we did.

        In addition to poetry, what holds us together, I think, is mutual respect. After twenty years of marriage, we know each other awfully well, and I believe each of us admires the choices the other makes in living a life. That, and we have similar caustic senses of humor. As for competing—we have learned that when we show each other a poem in progress it is best to ask for what we want to hear. Do we want a critique or an appreciation of the piece? This has helped us talk about each other’s work. Otherwise, we certainly do each want the other to get whatever success the other is looking for. And we each like the other’s writing, which is very helpful.

 

CD: If there’s a formula, it might be to not take ourselves overly seriously but to take each other quite seriously. How we spend our days is both avocation and vocation. That’s a wonderful thing to practice as individuals—and to share.

 

You’ve met a tremendous number of prominent poets over the years. Any interesting anecdotes about these experiences? How often do major poets just walk into the store?

 

JWM: You’re right, the list is very long. We have sold books at events ranging aesthetically from Barbara Guest to Billy Collins. It has been and continues to be quite a ride. Seamus Heaney and John Ashbery have each been in the store to do book signings. A friend who was driving Gwendolyn Brooks around town brought her in. She was delightfully magical. The late great American surrealist poet Philip Lamantia was brought to the store, and he too was quite a magical character. There are countless stories, but one vision that sticks with me is of looking down at Seamus Heaney’s name printed on a gold card when he was buying a book. I felt like I was taking part in an American Express commercial.

 

How can poetry be more relevant to American culture? Do you see it as a problem for a poet to be “popular” (one thinks of Billy Collins)? And how should poets balance accessibility with erudition or challenge? I think of Owen Barfield who refers to “strangeness” in poetry—that it’s only when poetry feels “strange” that the reader can grow by leaving his or her comfort level.

 

CD: Poetry can’t be any more relevant to American culture, or to any culture. It is what it is—it has been written for millennia and it will continue to be written, no matter what happens. Poets shouldn’t do any balancing—they should write what they need to write. They will find their community of readers, which may be one other person, if they’re lucky. In the entryway of our store we have a quotation by Emily Dickinson: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.” That sentiment has bothered several folks, who believe that poetry should always be warm and embracing. But engagement with art is always a risk. And out of that risk can come astounding reward. However, I’m also all in favor of the ditty, the witty, the silly bit of sonic nonsense. It’s all poetry. It all offers something that matters to human existence.

 

JWM: I do love the strange, and have always felt that I get surprised as a reader of a poem when the poet has been surprised during the writing of it. I look for that.

        The whole notion that a poet “should” do anything but write is a bit disquieting. The poet Dobby Gibson has a sweet piece in his book Polar that begins “It may be true that everything / has already been said, / but it’s just as true that not everyone / has had a chance to say it.” I find that a lovely sentiment. Before Nike told people to “Just Do It,” Elizabeth Bishop told herself to “Write it.”

        Studying the art, poetry and all other art, is good for the writer, and should be pleasurable too. Worrying overly about the reception of the poem is unlikely to make for good art.

 

Describe your relationship with the Seattle Arts & Lectures poetry series. Do you have any input on the selection of readers? And is selling books at local events like this essential to the store’s survival? It’s great that a prominent reading series like this engages you as its official bookseller.

[This question and its answer were omitted from the interview’s original appearance.]

 

JWM: Our relationship with Seattle Arts & Lectures stems from their hiring, years ago, Matt Brogan from the Academy of American Poets to be their director. He visited the store several times and we hit it off quite nicely before any notion of them offering a poetry program was hatched. We helped get the poetry series going, and donate a portion of the sales from the readings to keep the series viable. This relationship continues to be very beneficial to the store both in terms of selling books at the readings and in extending the presence of Open Books beyond its street location. Plus, we met Anne Carson through her appearance for SAL and she is one of our favorite poets. Icing on the cake.

 

Though you’ve said that the store has made a profit since it began, Open Books is not simply a place that turns a profit. In response to a Seattle Post-Intelligencer story about Open Books, one person commented, “We have many guests come from around the world. Always our Seattle tour includes a visit to Open Books. One visitor from Japan walked in, stood quietly for a minute and said ‘the air is different in here.’ The air is indeed different in a wonderful way in Open Books. It is a precious space that John and Christine have created.” Comments like this are surely a pleasure for you to hear. What are some of the best rewards of running a bookstore devoted to poetry?

[The preceding question was shortened to just its last sentence in the interview’s original appearance.]

 

CD: The books and the people, the people and the books. I am basically a private person. The poetry books here I might have been able to find elsewhere, but the people who have come into my life because of Open Books, the numerous and wonderful ways that they have broadened my life and my ever-evolving understanding of poetry, that would have been impossible without this store. I have the key to a place where poetry is paramount, where people read it, think about it, weep, laugh, and argue over it, and respect it profoundly. That continues to astound and delight me.

 

JWM: What more is there to say? I am astounded and delighted, too. What a lovely way to live.