Seattle’s Open Books: A Poem Emporium Opens Under New Ownership [5]

Seattle’s poetry-only bookstore, Open Books: A Poem Emporium [7], held its grand reopening on Saturday, September 17, celebrating its new lease on life under the ownership of former customer Billie Swift.

Open Books logoThis past April, husband-and-wife team John Marshall and Christine Deavel announced they were selling the 21-year-old business to Swift, who has been a devoted patron of the store since 2009. Located on the lower level of a renovated bungalow in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, the 500-square-foot shop carries around 10,000 new, used, and out-of-print poetry books from publishers large and small, as well as a selection of poetry-related titles.  

Swift signed on as the store’s official owner on September 1, after an apprenticeship that began in April.

“For me, Open Books has always been a sanctuary — John and Christine made poetry a place. When I came here I was able to sit ‘in poetry’ and just be surrounded by it,” said Swift, who has worked as an editor and recently finished her MFA in poetry at Pacific Lutheran University.

“It’s such a wonderful, lovely space with shelves and shelves and shelves of books spanning thousands of years of poetry and so many languages. It’s an opportunity to be in a space that is honoring the act of writing a poem, and that is a wonderful thing.”

Open Books storefront

Marshall and Deaval chose Swift from among more than 30 offers to purchase the store, which quickly flooded in after Marshall’s initial announcement in March. Upon first hearing the owners were retiring and Open Books was for sale, Swift said she became determined to do anything she could to keep the store open.

“I felt like it wasn’t an option for the store not to exist, so I thought, well, how do I prevent that from happening?” she said.

In an April e-mail to customers, Marshall wrote: “[Billie] has been an avid customer for years, has a sharp and inquiring mind, and is a truly engaging soul. We cannot imagine a better person to be entrusted with the future of Open Books.”

The celebration this past Saturday marked the store’s reopening after a two-week closure, during which Swift cleared out old unwanted items, added a few coats of paint to the walls, and upgraded the store’s ordering system.

“I’m also working on creating my own way of keeping track of inventory,” said Swift. “There are a number of really wonderful POS systems that integrate different functions but because we are a specialty bookstore it’s sort of tricky to find something that really makes sense for what we’re doing.”

Billie Swift
Billie Swift, the new owner of Open Books

At the grand reopening, returning customers also had the chance to check out the store’s new art wall, which currently features the work of Gabrielle Bates, a local poet and visual artist and an editor at The Seattle Review. Bates’ newest artwork, which will also appear in the pages of a forthcoming issue of Poetry magazine, will be for sale at Open Books throughout the fall.

“Then in the spring there is an area publisher that worked with a poetry group to create a ‘quilt of poetry’ [which will go on the wall],” said Swift. “I’m looking forward to creating a space for other artistic mediums that are also engaged in poetry but extend beyond the printed page.”

Swift currently has no plans to expand the store’s offerings beyond poetry and poetry-related books. The original Open Books opened in 1987 in a storefront a few blocks away as a general interest bookstore with a large poetry section. In 1995, Marshall and Deaval relocated to the store’s current location at 2414 North 45th Street and reopened as a poetry-only store.

“John and Christine are poets themselves and voracious readers,” said Swift. “They’re also the building’s landlords and live above the store, so I expect to see them in here all the time as customers.”

The biggest element of the store’s revitalization will be bringing back events, which was customers’ most consistent request, said Swift. She plans to host frequent author readings, discussions, and workshops as well as performances from the spoken word community. Swift would also like to strengthen Open Books’ partnerships with local universities and nonprofits, including the Seattle Arts & Lectures Poetry Series at whose events the store regularly sets up a sales table.

Poetry book display at Open Books

On September 22, the store’s first event will be a gathering of “poetry ambassadors” from around the city and the state, including Washington State Poet Laureates Tod Marshall (2016–2017) and Kathleen Flenniken (2013–2014) and Seattle Civic Poet Claudia Castro Luna (2015–2017). In October, Deavel will lead an event called “Poetry in Conversation.”

“I’m really looking forward to making this space available to the many people and poets of Seattle who are doing wonderful work in the community,” said Swift. “There are a lot of great people working with kids and on social justice issues, and I’m really trying to open the space to them to say, ‘This is a house of poetry — please use it to further the work that you are doing.’”