Families are eager to visit the white, wooden playhouse at Island Books. The green, gabled roof sits in the center of the children’s section and has welcomed two generations of visitors. In 2013, the bookstore celebrated its 40th anniversary on Mercer Island. The bookstore has become the community’s heart and second home as well as a bridge between the Eastside’s past and future.
“There are many parents who walk in with their little ones and tell them they once played here, too. There is a wonderful sense of continuity and connection for the community,” says Roger Page, co-owner with wife Nancy.
The Eastside long has been part of the Pacific Northwest’s reputation as a first-rate literary locale. However in recent years it is increasingly emerging as its own Book Beltway of readers, writers and events.
“Part of the maturing of the Eastside is that the cities are developing more of their own unique identities. We’re not just a suburb of Seattle anymore,” says Deborah Schneider, public programming coordinator for King County Library System (KCLS) and board member of Kirkland’s Northwest Bookfest. “There is a community here committed to reading opportunities and resources.”
In recent years, positive shifts in the literary landscape include municipalities dedicating support and funding. Also the area’s longstanding, but under-the-radar, writing community is gaining recognition. Most importantly the backbone of bookstores is moving forward and engaging the next generation.
Investing in Literature
Eastside cities are putting words into action. Urban hubs, such as Redmond and Kirkland, are making the literary arts a priority philosophically, policy-wise and financially.
“Kirkland is committed to the arts. It’s one of the brands of this city, and encourages others to come here,” says Ellen Miller-Wolfe, economic development manager for the City of Kirkland.
The city played a key role in relocating Northwest Bookfest to Kirkland in 2011. The event originated in Seattle during the early 1990s but lost momentum and went dormant. Deborah Schneider and Sheryn Hara, current Bookfest board members decided to resurrect it on the Eastside. Kirkland provided publicity, the use of local venues and seed money through grants.
“Part of the decision (to move) was logistical. In Seattle, it’s harder to find accessible sites with free parking,” says Schneider. “Plus, there is a huge population of book lovers in east King County, and Kirkland was so supportive from the start.”
The event was held at locations throughout downtown Kirkland for the initial two years and attracted over 2,000 attendees per year. Last year, Bookfest moved to nearby Northwest University, a more centralized location, and will be
there again Nov. 1-2.
Similarly, Redmond is employing the literary arts to attract visitors and put civic pride into words. The city council wrote into law an ordinance establishing a poet laureate’s position and funded it with $5,000 annually. The first poet was appointed in 2010. The third, Michael Dylan Welch, began his term in October 2013.
“The city understands that we have an educated and literate community with one of the highest educational attainments in the region,” says Josh Heim, arts administrator for the City of Redmond. “The literary arts and poetry specifically speak to those who live and work in Redmond today.”
It also helps celebrate the area’s diversity. Due to the presence of global companies such as Microsoft and Amazon, approximately 25 percent of the population is foreign-born and three out of 10 households speak a language other than English.
“This is a cosmopolitan community. Poetry matters. It’s a chance for native English speakers to look at our community differently. For others, it can be a positive entry point into local culture,” says Heim.
The poet laureate is purposefully integrated into city business. Past laureates were commissioned to study the city’s 2013 comprehensive plan — a policy document outlining everything from roads to water projects — and create poems to head individual sections. For public outreach, Welch spearheaded the Poets in the Park conference, Summer Poetry Walks and more events.
Putting Pen to Paper
Before there are books to read or events to attend, a writer must put pen to paper. The Eastside is proving fertile ground for writers thanks to its environment and resources.
“There is a real community of writers on the Eastside,” says Bob Dugoni, New York Times best-selling crime novelist and Northwest Bookfest board member. “Writers have opportunities to improve and get better. If they take advantage of it, it helps nurture their soul and prose.”
Dugoni moved to Kirkland from Seattle in 2003. He finds that his work benefits from the Eastside’s “easier living” — more open space, affordability and supportive atmosphere. Resources also abound, such as the Issaquah-based Pacific Northwest Writers Association founded in 1956.
“Most people generally don’t know that many of their Eastside neighbors, people they see at the grocery store, are successful writers and authors,” says Schneider. “It’s like the town’s well-kept secret.”
In addition to writers whose names are already on bookshelves, aspiring scribes have abundant opportunities to hone their craft. The Redmond Association of the Spokenword (RASP), founded in 1997, hosts a monthly reading series and open mic nights for novices and professionals to share written work. RASP published its first poetry anthology in 2013 to spotlight local writers.
“There is an unspoken message of saying poetry and writing matters here. That says a lot about the community,” says Michael Dylan Welch, who helps curate RASP events. “There is something incredibly valuable in that statement.”
Bookstores Ensure Long Shelf Lives
Reading is often a solitary activity, but the love of reading creates meaningful bonds. Island Books has anchored Mercer Island for 40 years. University Book Stores dot the Eastside. And bookending Lake Washington at the north end is Kirkland’s Parkplace Books.
Founded in 1990, Parkplace is co-owned by Mary Harris and Rebecca Willow who bought the store in 2002. The shop hosts upward of 75 readings a year, often highlighting Northwest authors and 30-55 book clubs meet there. A particular focus at the store is education. Every March it spearheads a program for 20 children’s and young adult authors to visit area schools.
“We really try to be a community bookstore. We want to give people a sense that they can come in here and talk about anything. We do that because we truly care about Kirkland, the customers and the interests of the bookstore,” says Willow.
Bookstores endured a particularly uncertain future in recent years. In 2009, the American Booksellers’ Association experienced a national low point in membership. It has steadily grown since. Independents such as Parkplace and Island Books are evolving into more regional bookstores. They are attracting customers from around the Eastside in addition to their local neighborhoods. Island Books estimates 25 percent of its clientele is from outside Mercer Island.
“People want to come in the door. It’s not like a grocery store where they have to get food. They come because they want to be here and they love reading. What could be better than to spend time connecting with people who love literature?” asks Harris.
Book Lovers Flock to University Book Store
University Book Store is open to the community and has several locations and hosts inspiring events throughout the region for book lovers and people who are interested in meeting knowledgeable authors. They also offer several popular story times for children — to help plant the seed and love of reading and learning early. Be sure to check out local events at 425-area University Book Store locations, which include Bellevue (990 102nd Ave N.E.), Bothell (18325 Campus Way N.E., Suite 102), Mill Creek (15311 Main St.) and Renton (800 N. 10th Place, Suite A)