The Rise of the Bookstore

Posted inCreative Voices

The minute I walked into Kingfisher Books I thought, “Either I haven’t been in a book store in a very long time, or there’s something unusual about this place.” While the former is true, the latter is more so. I was immediately struck by how delicious everything looked—how I was called in all directions by beautiful, enticing books. The displays were so pretty! So handsome! And not a schlock bestseller in sight.

The store is owned and run by Meg and Brad Olson (full disclosure: Brad is my ex-husband from 32 years ago.), who bought it a few years ago in rather dishevelled condition and fixed up the historic building into a warm and inviting space, while completely restocking the store with an astonishingly well-curated selection of books.

The store is not grand, or huge or overflowing, but what is amazing about it is how much I wanted to sit by every shelf and read everything in it. I began to wonder if Meg was stocking books based on their covers alone—even the outfacing spines were as tempting as candy. And while we can’t say she stocks by covers, there’s no doubt that she considers the covers and the editions she chooses for the store. For classics in particular, she has found some of the nicest looking editions I’ve ever seen.

While not a fan of children per se, I do take an interest in what they read because reading was such an important part of my childhood and teenage years, and because I know there are some delightful children’s books out there, if you can find them. Here again, Kingfisher excels, with books I was thrilled to see (illustrated On the Origin of Species!!).

The entire experience was heartening, partly due to the memory of being in a book store and how one item leads to the next, and how curiousity leads to the unknown and untried—something algorithms can never recreate. Mostly, however, I was reminded of the couple of years I spent volunteering at my small, local library. While I enjoyed that up to a point (up to the point of having thoroughly explored our small collection), I was despairing of the plethora of mysteries and thrillers, often written by chain writers, and how these were the most requested books in the library. I entered a kind of war with one of the librarians, where I would peruse the New Books section and shelve, spine-out, all the hideous best-sellers, and find the best- and more interesting-looking books to display front-cover. I would change it; she would come and change it back. I was left a little more alone when I rummaged through the hundreds of shitty kids’ books to display the most imaginative and artistic ones. Ultimately, I quit because it was depressing me about the state of reading and the state of aesthetics. That Kingfisher books does a good business fills me with a warm joy and tentative hope.

Imagination is important for the writer, the reader, and also the bookseller. I was impressed by Kingfisher’s “Reading Roulette” table, where books are packaged in brown paper with hand-written cryptic descriptions on them (surprisingly popular!); a section of tiny books (which includes some of the little poetry books I designed for New Directions); and, while I was there, they were collecting unusual books for Mother’s Day (e.g. “Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi, for the strained mother-daughter relationship”; “Chouette by Claire Oshetsky, for moms raising a predatory bird baby”; “Carry the Dog by Stephanie Gangi, for the manipulative art fiend mom”); they do author events and story-times; and they’ve got big plans for themed book + cocktail nights (in their cozy, book-filled basement), and even a speakeasy in a basement back room (I hope I’m not giving away any secrets).

Kingfisher books is in Coupeville on Whidbey Island in Washington and is open every day. It’s a pretty place for a trip, and a short distance from Seattle. If you want to feel like a kid in a candy store—or an adult in a book store—again, I recommend the trip.

This essay was originally published on Marian’s blog, Marian Bantjes is Writing Again. You can keep up with her work here, or look through her archives on Substack.