On April 28, 1995, John W. Marshall and Christine Deavel open a bookstore in Seattle devoted exclusively to poetry and poetry-related titles. Open Books: A Poem Emporium is one of two such bookstores in the nation, the other being The Grolier Bookshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Open Books is an independent (non-chain) bookstore with more than 6,000 titles that forms a congenial and knowledgeable focal point for Seattle's large and, to say the least, eclectic poetry community. It is located at 2414 North 45th Street in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood. The store sponsors numerous readings and signings by poets of local and national reputation ranging from Laynie Browne to Heather McHugh to Seamus Heaney.
Not Waging the Poetry Wars: Neutral But Knowledgeable
The poetry scene in Seattle and across the country is Balkanized, with varous groupings and aesthetics ranging from Haiku to Beat to Spoken Word to Slam, from language poems to prose poems, from visual poetry to the New Formalism. Open Books proprietors J. W. Marshall and Christine Deavel are themselves poets (both are graduates of the M.F.A. program at Iowa) and they bring to their task an infectious enthusiasm for poetry across diverse aesthetics. They happily advise customers on everything from which language poet to begin reading to which volume of Neruda would make the best gift for a particular aunt or father.
Virtually all Seattle poets (and many visiting poets) come into the store at one time or another. But many customers are not poets. Open Books has proved false the truism that only poets read poetry. Bus drivers, dishwashers, and dentists also read poetry.
History and Geography
Open Books originated in a store of the same name located a few blocks north (at 1716 North 45th Street). The original Open Books, opened by John W. Marshall on September 18, 1987, was a general bookstore with an emphasis on poetry. Eventually Christine Deavel became his business partner. (They are also married.)
During the early 1990s, the original Open Books began to feel the squeeze of the chain bookstores then moving into Seattle. Chain stores such as Barnes and Noble and Borders discounted books heavily with the result that several independent stores folded. Open Books was strongest in poetry -- at the point of closure, according to Marshall, poetry comprised 40 percent of the titles but more than 50 percent of sales. This, and the fact that the rental lease was up, and it seemed time to buy a building in which to house the store, persuaded them to close the first Open Books.
Above all, poetry was their obsession, not books on how to remodel your kitchen or groom your dog. "This is what we know and love," says Christine Deavel. "And it's more fun."
Marshall explained that it was about value added. Value added is what the merchant adds to the merchandise. What Marshall and Deavel add to the merchandise is knowledge. One time, a customer came into the store wanting a book by someone named Sharon Gold. The book had the word "Cell" in the title. At most bookstores the clerk would kindly look up Sharon Gold in the computer and find no such author. But this customer walked out of Open Books: A Poem Emporium with a book by Sharon Olds (not Gold) titled The Gold Cell.
Value added is also about the good talk about poetry that ensues when you walk into the store. It is about the white walls above the bookshelves adorned with sayings such as:
One Reads Poetry With One's Nerves.
A poem is untoward.
Successions of words are so agreeable.
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
Value added is about the sheer number of books, representing for the curious or the obsessed a fair representation of poetry in English (including translation) such as it is and such as it has been.