No Prose Allowed: Seattle's Poetry-Only Emporium

Open Books: A Poem Emporium is located on the lower level of a renovated bungalow in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. The 500-square-foot shop is brimming with over 10,000 new, used, and out-of-print poetry books.

New owner Billie Swift gives us the virtual tour.

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Tell us a little bit about Open Books – what is it like when you walk in?

Open Books has been a second home to me since I moved back to Seattle in 2006, so when I became the new owner in September 2016, I didn’t have any major renovations in mind. I have made a few little changes, though: a fresh coat of paint to brighten up the space and a big, comfortable reading chair. We’ve got benches and a long table for working, along with an increased number of shelves devoted to helping readers discover debut poets, brand-new releases, emerging small presses and out-of-print treasures. The content of these shelves shifts all the time. I want it to be a dynamic space where people can spend time exploring and finding poetry that is new and exciting for them, because for me, that moment of discovery is one of the best things about walking into a brick-and-mortar store.

How long has Open Books been part of the neighborhood?

Open Books was founded in 1995 by John Marshall and Christine Deavel. They’re now our landlords and they live right above us. The store sits on a busy street surrounded by great places to eat. It’s a small space, about 600 square feet, located not far from the University of Washington, but we manage to pack in a lot of books, journals, and chapbooks. And we’re excited to be re-invigorating our events schedule to host readings, discussions, signings, and more. Before I became owner, I was always impressed with how full-to-bursting the store’s selection felt, even though the space itself felt very minimal and uncluttered. It’s a tricky balance that I’m making every effort to maintain.

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What is it like to browse in Open Books? What's coming up on your event calendar?

For the most part, the books are organized alphabetically by author. This takes up most of the shelf space. We also have a section for anthologies, books on poetics and translation, a dedicated space for children’s poetry, and a growing selection of literary magazines.

One of my goals has been to revitalize the events calendar so that we can be a greater support to local and regional writers­—as readers and as audience members. In the past few months we’ve already been nearly filled to capacity for a number of readings. It’s been exciting to see just how invested this community is in poetry.

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We’re also trying to expand and revise the format of our poetry events. We’ve started a series called On Translation, in which translators not only read their work but also participate in a conversation about the challenges and rewards of translation. In this and other discussion formats we’re offering, such as another recent event called On Collaboration, we want to encourage attendees to join in the discussion more actively, not only asking questions, but offering up their own opinions and experiences. In January a terrific local poet is going to host a discussion/lecture/reading on the poet Etel Adnan, which we hope will thrill Adnan’s most devoted fans as much as it may inspire those new to her work.

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It’s also been important to me to expand our programming for children, since so many people’s love for poetry starts when they’re young. We started a weekly Winnie-the-Pooh Story Time, and we’re bringing in a wonderful array of guest readers to read for that event. We’re going to continue to look for opportunities to expand our offerings for children and young people.

Finally, we’re looking to open an online store in early 2017, so that individuals, universities, and institutions can order books from wherever they are and support a local bookstore at the same time. Keep an eye on www.openpoetrybooks.com in the new year.


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