We Are the Champions!

The last Saturday in April is Independent Bookstore Day across the United States. In Seattle, it is also Seattle Bookstore Day, home to the Seattle Bookstore Challenge. Each of the past four years I have taken the challenge and visited each of the participating stores, passport in hand. The first year (2015) there were 17 stores on the list (two requiring 30-minute ferry rides), and my colleagues and I thought a handful of people might actually be crazy enough to finish the whole thing. Surely the only people out there would be book industry people. Who else would spend an entire Saturday visiting bookstores? Katie, our intrepid Penguin Random House sales rep, offered to drive at the last minute, when we heard that a couple of booksellers from New Jersey were flying out to participate. We couldn't let them show us up! Thus a tradition was born.
I lost my wallet in 2015, so my collection is sadly incomplete. 

"...in our first year, we weren't sure if anyone would complete the full Passport Challenge, but we crowned 42 Grand Champions. In 2017, our third year, the number of Grand Champions, all of whom visited 19 stores from Poulsbo to Kirkland to Queen Anne to Georgetown in a single day, exploded to 320, and in 2018 our total number of Champions increased yet again, to nearly 500." - SeattleBookstoreDay.com

Most of the stores remain the same, but each year I have visited at least one store that was new to me and a few that were newly opened. The first four years, I traveled the route in Katie's trusty Prius laden with booksellers and baked goods.
My first four completed Seattle Bookstore Day Passports 

In 2019, the number of stores grew to 21 companies and 26 locations, requiring stops as far-flung as Poulsbo, Burien, Redmond, Magnolia, and Edmonds. The incentive for this epic bookstore journey? Bragging rights and an Indie Bookstore Champion card that entitles its owner to a 25% discount at all participating stores for a year.
Official Seattle Bookstore Day map by Stephen Crowe. Check out his work at http://www.invisibledot.net/

This year, Wayne had offered to drive me all over the map on his motorcycle. I tossed and turned all night, so we both slept poorly. The alarm went off at 6:30am, just as I was finally drifting off (thanks, brain!), but we dragged ourselves out of bed and gathered our gear. The forecast called for morning rain. Peeking out the window, I saw blue sky and sunshine. As we walked up to the parking garage, ominous clouds loomed to the south. We hoped they would not catch up to us. I hoped Wayne would not regret his decision to wake at the crack of dawn on a Saturday to spend all day on a crazed marathon mission to visit an absurd number of bookstores.

Kitsap County is a popular place to start the passport trek, and all three stores there open at 7am on Bookstore Day. Eagle Harbor Books and The Traveler are near the ferry terminal on Bainbridge Island, and hundreds of Seattleites boarded the 6:15am ferry to be there when they opened.

We arrived at Liberty Bay Books in Poulsbo, our first stop, at 7:45am to find at least 50 people lined up on the sidewalk. We filed in behind a group traveling in one of two vans provided by Seattle Arts and Lectures; we would encounter them more than a dozen times over the course of the day. By the time we made it in the door, another 50 people had joined the queue behind us. The bookstore had already run out of color printed passports (designed by the talented Stephen Crowe) and gave us black and white photocopies.

We zipped down to Bainbridge Island after our Poulsbo stop. After visiting both bookstores and making the day's first purchase (a Seattle Bookstore Day temporary tattoo), we walked up the street to Coquette Bakeshop (Wayne proclaimed this his primary incentive for joining this mad journey) for delicious coffee and pastries.  One drawback to motorcycle travel: no road snacks. One advantage: I didn't sit in the car over-indulging on pastries all day.

Team Snack Pack leaving Seattle for Bainbridge Island at the start of the 2016 bookstore challenge

We zoomed back up to Kingston and rolled into the holding area as the 9:35 ferry was loading. Breezing right past the long line of cars is a huge advantage of motorcycle (and bicycle) travel. We didn't even have to pause and were waved right onto the boat. We saw many other book lovers on the ferry, including at least one of the SAL vans. The whole day is a giant roving book lovers' party, with many squads wearing custom t-shirts.
The crowd descends upon Edmonds Bookshop

At Edmonds Bookshop, a small general interest shop in the heart of downtown Edmonds, I helped myself to a fortune cookie from the bowl on the counter. My fortune? "It's time to buy another book." I showed great restraint, knowing that we had a long way to go and limited cargo capacity. We poked around a bit and walked out just in time to beat the majority of passport-toting folks from our ferry.

We took a scenic drive up the aptly named Olympic View Drive and admired the snow-capped peaks and white-capped bay on the way to our next stop. As we wound our way through the forest, we congratulated ourselves for choosing a gorgeous day for a motorcycle outing.

In a little shopping center in the Perrinville neighborhood, we came to the new location of The Neverending Bookshop. Annie Carl started her store in Bothell in 2015 and moved to Edmonds last summer. The store is thriving in its new larger, brighter, and more accessible location. It is also transitioning toward a focus on genre (romance, mystery, science fiction) and young adult books. As is the case with many independent stores, the owner's tastes are reflected in the stock. Primarily filled with used books, there are always a handful of new titles on display as well.
Stop #5: The Neverending Bookshop in Edmonds

As we lingered outside, we saw a man pull up on a bike and pull out a passport! He was doing the entire tour by bike, which I have thought about every year but had decided was likely impossible. His plan included using the bus and light rail strategically to reach the furthest stores for a multimodal passport challenge. We wished him well as we sped off toward Lake Washington.

Our sixth stop was my workplace of a dozen years, Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. The store was bustling with activities for all ages, including a photo booth, blackout poetry, bookmark making, and much more. I spent a while visiting with friends and bought a tote bag, which I justified because I am no longer acquiring a dozen free book totes every year.  I forgot to use one of the Third Place gift cards still in my wallet. Oops. I guess I'll have to go back sometime. At the register, a new employee leaned over and asked, "Are you The Emily?"
I totes needed this IBD bag.

Next we rode over the river, through the woods, and along the lake to Kirkland, where we stopped at BookTree, founded in 2016 by a veteran bookseller and a poet. This little shop joined the bookstore passport in 2017, and each year it feels more grounded. So much of an independent store's identity comes through in the small details, like the promotional posters and framed quotations that adorn the walls and shelves, all expressions of the people who work there.

Provisioning one of the Seattle Arts & Lectures vans outside Brick & Mortar Books. 

From Kirkland we stopped at red light after red light after red light until we finally arrived at Town Center. There is nothing quite like riding a fast motorcycle very slowly, 2 blocks at a time. Ask Wayne sometime how he feels about poorly timed traffic lights. He has opinions.

I first met Dan, a former teacher who owns Brick and Mortar Books with his family, at a book trade event a year or more before the store opened. He had set out with passion and enthusiasm to learn as much as possible about the industry before opening the doors, and the knowledge he absorbed shows.

The Arrival, on display in the foreground, is an all-time favorite I was pleased to find on display at Brick & Mortar Books.

I paid my first visit to Island Books on Mercer Island as part of the first bookstore tour in 2015, and I was immediately smitten. Roger, then-owner and bookseller since the 1980s, was challenging all comers to a gift-wrapping contest, and Katie took the challenge. Personal touches abound in this local fixture, and since Roger retired, Laurie and Victor, the new owners, have continued the tradition of great books, friendly service, and community involvement in the middle of Lake Washington. They also sell Island Treats. Go get some. I'm partial to the Cherry Bombs and the Pretzel Thingies, but everything they make is dangerously good.

The wind picked up, whipping up whitecaps on the north side of the bridge as we left Mercer Island, heading East on I-90. We got stuck at a drawbridge in Georgetown en route to Burien, where we visited Page 2 Books, the first of the new additions to this year's passport. Last summer we missed a flight out of SeaTac and spent a relaxing day exploring Burien, and we had stumbled upon the bookstore then.

After a browse through the aisles of new and used books, we walked a few blocks to Bok a Bok for the fried chicken sandwiches that we know and love from their White Center location. The bright, clean shop was in a strip mall next to The Burien Fish House, so we decided to sit outside and try some fried fish (perfectly crispy on the outside, moist and flaky on the inside) with our fried chicken (delicious as expected).  Everywhere we turned in Burien, there was another ethnic restaurant or shop that caught our eyes, and we want to spend more time there eating All The Foods.

We bumped into our friends Colleen & Hector outside Island Books, and they snapped this photo. Do we look tired?

Bellies full, we stopped at a drug store for Moleskin. Wayne's jacket collar was rubbing his neck raw on both sides, making it uncomfortable to check his blind spot. I stuck two big patches to his neck, and we left for Georgetown in greater comfort. There we visited Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery, the only comics-focused shop on the day's agenda. I have a soft spot for comics and always learn something in this shop, which carries many zines and non-mainstream comics published by Fantagraphics and other small presses. The bookstore shares a bright corner space with Georgetown Records, neighborhood purveyors of used vinyl since 2004. We also spotted a shop around the corner called Seattle Freeze. If we had not just stuffed ourselves in Burien, I would have bought something just for the sake of their name. Also, they have ice cream and donuts!

Fantagraphics has the best windows. 

The clock was ticking toward 4pm, and we had 10 stores left. 

With an eye on closing times, we parked down the block from Arundel Books, the first new-to-me store of the day. I had known the name for almost two decades, but I thought of them as a rare and collectible book dealer. They do stock collectibles, but I was surprised to find a section of used mass market paperbacks and other general used book fare. This is why I do this! I learn something every year. The store is beautiful, with glass cabinets for rare books and wood shelves that glow in the afternoon light.
Warm wood abounds at Arundel Books near Pioneer Square

Next we set out for Fremont and Book Larder: A Community Cookbook Store, a store made for me. They have a demonstration kitchen and a packed events calendar, a handful of carefully chosen kitchen items, and of course lots of big beautiful cookbooks on clean white shelves that make the small store feel bright and welcoming. We encountered Katie there, touring stores this year with Patti, the former owner of Watermark Book Company in Anacortes. Patti is special to us because she knew Wayne and me separately before we met and befriended both of us. And that's just cool.  The store was jam packed, so here is a photo from our 2015 visit.
Lillian, who now runs the children's department at Island Books, worked at Book Larder back in the day.

Open Books: A Poem Emporium is a narrow shop in Wallingford with a cheery red front and neat rows of shelves. It might seem small, but poetry books are thin, and thousands of titles fill this shop. I dare you to walk in there claiming you don't like poetry. I bet they have something for you. They hand out poems every year to all of their visitors on Bookstore Day. In the frantic late afternoon, as I attempt to mentally count the remaining stores on our list, pausing to read a poem reminds me to breathe. If you do enjoy poetry but haven't visited this store, what are you waiting for?
My free poem from Open Books.

Stop #15 took us to Market Street in Ballard and Secret Garden Books, where we again encountered Katie and Patti, chatting with Christy, the owner. Christy once lived aboard a sailboat smaller than ours with a newborn and another young child, without running water or electricity. I knew she had lived on a sailboat, but she spun an impressive tale. Her store of over 40 years specializes in children's books and school events but carries plenty for adults too.
The sandwich board says "Welcome Future Champs"

Nearly ten hours into the day, we were road weary and a little dehydrated. 

We lingered to drink some water and take in a bit of caffeine, and we felt a bit rushed as we left for Magnolia's Bookstore. Google said the trip would take 17 minutes, which left us about 10 minutes to spare before they closed. We had to wait through three changes of the light to make a right turn onto 15th Avenue, then had to wait for the Ballard Bridge to lower (stupid boats!). I knew we had time, but I didn't like cutting it so close this far into a very long day. Magnolia is a cozy, out-of-the-way neighborhood, and the general interest bookstore, in business since 1992, is located in its walkable retail core.
My first visit to Magnolia's on Bookstore Day in 2016. 

The next stop on our journey was Queen Anne Book Company, which was my neighborhood store a few years ago. This small but mighty store is a neighborhood powerhouse in the heart of upper Queen Anne, fueled by passionate veteran booksellers who carefully curate the stock and know exactly which book will make the perfect gift for your Uncle Stan. They have a busy event schedule and are an integral part of the neighborhood.
Wendee and Janis were tired but happy by the time we arrived at Queen Anne Book Company on our 2017 tour.

Four stores left.
We can do this.
Let's drink some water and rest a minute.

University Bookstore offers one hour of free parking for customers, and that fact has lured me in when I might otherwise go elsewhere. The main attraction, though, is their wonderful, knowledgeable staff and great selection. They are the longest tenured bookstore in Seattle at 119 years; the store was started in a cloakroom in 1900. They sell textbooks, yes, and all manner of UW-branded gear, but they also have a whole trade bookstore and a world-class events program that hosts everyone from Hillary Clinton and Neil Gaiman to local authors who might be the next bestseller you don't know about yet.
Late in the day selfie with University Bookstore staff on Bookstore Day 2017

Three stores left, and finally we arrived at the one I was most excited about! 

Madison Books is a new sister store of the wonderful Phinney Books, and its official first day was Indie Bookstore Day. When I heard that my colleague and fellow four-time Indie Bookstore Champion James Crossley (pictured below) had been hired to manage the new shop, I knew the tiny store would be impeccably curated. I was happy to be right. In a half-full (occupancy permits were only granted a few days ago) 400-square foot store, I found many favorites and many I knew by reputation, but I also saw unfamiliar titles. I look forward to visiting again to see how the stock evolves. I bought an NYRB Classics paperback of The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, which has been on my radar for years.
At the inaugural Indie Bookstore Champions party at Ada's Technical Books. James was born to wear a crown.

The photo does not do justice to this fluorescent, eye-popping bookmark.

Wayne rode along to most of the stores last year, but he had to leave mid-afternoon to sell a bike to a nice couple who had driven all the way from Montana to see it. So he had not yet been to Ada's Technical Books, the one store I was sure would make his engineer's heart flutter. I had meant to take him there, but we rarely venture up to Capitol Hill, even for delicious foods. Near the end of an exhausting day, he was excited to browse their broad selection of technical books. This shop is truly a marvel, even if, like me, you lean more toward historical fiction than electronics. They stock small electronics kits and coffee-making implements, and they have a surprisingly strong selection of cookbooks. They make a damn good cup of coffee, and their cafe tables are incredible.

While I lingered near the front of the store, in walked the man who we had met outside The Neverending Bookshop that morning, riding his bike! I asked where he was in his quest, and he said, "This is my last stop!" He had left Green Lake around 5am, and it was now almost 8pm. A truly impressive feat.
The look on Shawn's face in this 2016 picture sums up how it feels to reach the penultimate store of the day.

Our final stop, dictated by tradition and their late closing time, was Elliott Bay Book Company. On Capitol Hill, parking is usually scarce, exorbitantly priced, or both.  In a moment of triumph, we found a spot on the street at 10th and Pike, right up the street from the bookstore. The glorious smell of waffle cones wafted over us from Molly Moon's, but we resisted. Let's just complete this mission and hit the road before the Mariner's game ends, lest we get stuck in traffic. We turned in our passports, grabbed our Jell-o shot rewards, and took our finish line photos.
When they offer you a crown, always say yes. 

Traditional victory photo in the doorway of Elliott Bay Book Company.

My fifth year of this ridiculous mobile bookstore party was by far the most exhausting, but I would not trade it for anything. The spirit of camaraderie, festivity, and community is infectious, and by the end of the day I recognized dozens of faces as fellow dedicated book lovers.

Wayne was a trooper, rallying through grumpy, tired moments to find some good humor and follow through to the end. My face was chafed from donning and removing my helmet 20+ times over the course of the day, and Wayne's neck was rubbed raw by his jacket collar. By the end of the day, I had trouble swinging my leg over the back of the bike, and Wayne's clutch hand ached.

We logged 147 miles in 13 hours on our quest, then another 70 miles to get home. We stopped in Tacoma at Devil's Reef, our favorite Puget Sound tiki bar, on the way home for a celebratory cocktail, tasty snacks, and some much needed decompression. I ordered a Painkiller.
Celebrating with drinks at Devil's Reef in Tacoma


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