Ruth’s Bookstore Safari, Part I: An Indie in the Pacific Northwest
Third Place Books
Visited: 15 May, 2017
I began my bookstore safari in Seattle, Washington, where I was visiting my particular friend Maren Donley. Before I arrived, I explained my quest to her, and she immediately recommended a visit to the Third Place Books. While there are three Third Places (I’m not sure how the math works on that, whether it requires simple addition or some kind of quantum exponential multiplication), Maren suggested we drop by the Lake Forest store. “I drive by it twice a week. I had never been in until I met my priest there for a meeting. Then I said, ‘Oh! I have really been missing out!'” she told me.
As always, Maren’s advice proved invaluable. I contacted the store and was put in touch with Zak Nelson, the Events and Marketing Manager. Mr. Nelson gave me some background, drawn from the website, on the store and its philosophy. He explained that “Third Place Books is the deliberate and intentional creation of a community around books and the ideas inside them” and that the name, Third Place Books, comes from sociologist Ray Oldenberg’s idea “that each of us needs three places: first is the home; second is the workplace or school,” and a third place “where people from all walks of life interact, experiencing and celebrating their commonality as well as their diversity.”
Maren commented on this aspect of the store as well. After our visit, she remarked, “I appreciate that so much of that space is devoted to the community and I will go out my way to make purchases there because I value that space. I have never found anywhere else that can do that.” Before visiting the book store, Maren and I fortified ourselves with lunch at the Everest Kitchen, a few doors away from Third Place. We find Indian food tends to be the best way to prepare for about anything, and we wanted to ensure we would have sufficient stamina for an extended exploration.
When Maren and I walked into the Lake Forest Third Place, the atmosphere and layout were genuinely comfortable and intriguing. It felt almost as much like a library as a book store, a place where one could take the time to get to know a book before deciding whether to take it home.
Mr. Nelson had suggested that I speak with Robert Sindelar, the Managing Partner and now president of the American Booksellers Association. When Maren and I arrived, Mr. Sindelar was working in the back, but one of the clerks at the customer service desk cheerfully went off to find him. Mr. Sindelar came out and showed me around the store and talked about his store’s commitment to authors.
Third Place hosts authors—both new, local writers and established celebrities—fifteen times a month. The traditionally published authors have their publishers behind them to arrange readings and signings, while local authors must approach the store in person to arrange appearances and apply to have Third Place carry their books in the stores. When considering self-published works, the Third Place staff take into account not only the quality of the books, but also whether the authors are motivated self-promoters.
As an additional support to Seattle-area authors, the book store offers Third Place Press for those who want to self-publish. The Press designs books and publishes them using its Espresso Book Machine. The Third Place Press office is located not in the book store itself, but in the Commons, near the stage. Many of the books produced there are displayed in the window of the office. It should be noted that publishing with Third Place Press does not guarantee that the book store will carry the book produced. TPP authors must go through the same application process as other independent writers. Mr. Nelson wrote me that the stores carry local authors’ works on consignment.
The selection of books, Mr. Sindelar told me, has a curatorial aspect. The staff have a lot of say in the choices, which are also guided by the interests of customers and the diverse ideas and opinions that represent the neighborhood. It seems that every aspect of Third Place is indeed geared toward fostering community and neighborhood. The Commons area not only has ample seating and a play area for small children, it has three restaurants as well: sustenance for both mind and body.
And then there’s the stage. The bookstore uses it for readings and signings, and shares it with schools, musicians, and theatre groups as another way to create inclusive and cohesive bonds between various individuals and groups in the area. Mr. Nelson, in one of his e-mails, had assured me that Third Place “depends on having a well-rounded and enticing events program.”
When Mr. Sindelar had to take his turn staffing the information counter, I explored the store some more on my own and eventually found Maren in the children’s section with Rene Holderman, one of the store clerks who had greeted us when we first arrived. Maren was looking for books for her children, both voracious consumers of literature. On the way home, Maren confided that “This is the second time that Rene has been able to help me select books for my daughter. She’s an avid reader with VERY specific tastes. It’s such a pleasure to have expert help.”
As we wended our way toward the registers at the front of the store, Maren pointed out the cards that annotated the books on the tables and shelves. The cards offered reviews by the staff, noted awards won by the book and author, and even let browsers know that a less expensive edition of the book in question was available on a different shelf in the store. I had seen cards similarly deployed in other stores, but never to such good effect. Walking through the store while looking at the books and reading the cards was like enjoying a stimulating conversation with friends or taking part in a silent book club discussion.
Third Place is a community epicenter that extends opportunities for education and enjoyment. While Third Place strives to be a place apart from home and work or school, I think it might be something better: a place that embraces aspects of all our important environments and makes room for members of the community to nurture their separate selves within while forging connections with the world around them.
A quick look at The Commons and Third Place Books.
I want to thank Zak Nelson and Rene Holderman for their assistance; I am particularly grateful to Robert Sindelar for his time and kindness in showing me around. And especial gratitude to Maren Donley for leading me to Third Place Books, and for more than I can articulate here.