I love books. And I love bookstores! Today they’re an endangered species, and I mourn each one that passes. So, when I heard that Seattle’s East West Bookshop was in trouble, I wanted to help.
East West has survived this long because it’s a eclectic spiritual resource; and because it’s associated with Ananda, an intentional community based north of Seattle. But now Sound Transit was building the new Roosevelt District subway station next-door. This project eliminated the parking lot of a nearby grocery and much of the street parking on the block. As much as Seattle promotes bicycling and public transit, without parking, most businesses die–not to mention one that’s competing with Costco and Amazon. The final straw; the landlord had raised the bookstore’s rent.
A vacant store had been found in a mini-mall across the street; it offered free parking. But getting the bookstore over there before its lease ran out at month-end, while keeping it open enough to avoid income starvation, was a big challenge. A call went out for volunteers.
The move kicked off Sunday afternoon with a briefing in the old store. I had supposed that a book store would need to be somewhat systematic in such a move; but the procedure they laid out was awesome. We were issued “shopping lists” for each bookshelf in the new store. Each list itemized the shelves in the old store whose books were to be packed together in numbered plastic tubs, in reverse alphabetic order by author. When unpacked, the books would go up in alphabetic order. Slick!
Of course in practice it wasn’t quite that slick. Pat and I packed the New Arrivals shelves. But we kept getting confused about which way to orient the armloads of books we were putting in the tubs. Then we ran out of tubs. While we waited for empties to come back from the new store, we piled books on the floor in alphabetical order so they’d be reversed when we out them in tubs later.
We moved on to other jobs. I ended up in the new store, shelving New Arrivals. This didn’t go smoothly. The woman I was working with wasn’t sure which tub to empty next, nor in what order to get piles out of the tubs. We kept finding piles that started with different letters, and I had to move the shelved books again and again as the collection grew from the middle. “Who packed these books, anyway?” She grumbled. I was very quiet.
Books were just the start of the challenge. There were wind chimes, fountains, yoga props, toys, bookshelves, ceramics, track lighting, glass display cases, candles, greeting cards, clothing–and, everywhere, awkward, delicate things that needed to be moved. And then there was the back office, filled with desks, computers, printing supplies, catalogs, class material, a kitchen with all its accouterments, and decades of detritus. Now and then somebody would announce “I need people at the loading dock!” Or I would pester a staff member (who understandably didn’t want volunteers to goof up the store’s operation) for something to do.
Together with a variety of friends and strangers, I packed, loaded trucks, unloaded trucks, unpacked, took down, arranged and destroyed. I helped load a pickup truck, and jumped in with the driver. He pulled into the intersection of 65th and Roosevelt just as the light changed, and got jammed sideways. I heard only one protesting honk; Seattle drivers are pretty laid-back. The light changed again; he completed his left turn, drove to the end of the block and quickly made three more lefts. He parked and took off his seat belt.
“So,” I said. “Why did we come back?”
“This is the old store,” he explained. Then a pause; “Oh!” He slapped his forehead. “I just drove 200 miles; I’m kinda loopy.” He headed out into traffic again and parked in front of the new store.
The mini-mall had a huge freight elevator. If we didn’t keep pushing Door Open, the cage door would come down and scare us while we were loading it. When the elevator was well and truly stuffed, we’d squeeze in and exhale to make room as the cage door came down next to our noses; then the vertical doors shut their rubber lips. The wall crawled downward, a sight that normal elevator users never see; “Eighth floor; higher chakras, lingerie!”
An inclined corridor descended from the upper landing to the back door into the new store. I treated myself to a ride down the ramp on a four-wheeled stool. When furniture was coming thru, people returning to the elevator took refuge on the sills of the windows overlooking Roosevelt Avenue.
At ten o’clock Thursday night, the last day of May, Pat said it was time to go home. But there was so much left to do. The warren of storerooms and offices in the old store still had stubborn remnants of detritus, and the carpets were gritty. Pat thought the owner might not come for the keys until Friday afternoon; even so, it would be a near thing. The Event Room in the new store was crammed with boxes, tubs and furniture, and it was needed for a yoga class and the grand opening party.
On Friday I hurried to the old store after breakfast, and was put to work packing office supplies. I was unscrewing partitions from the wall with a screw gun when a young girl came in, working with her mother. She looked to be about 12; but she held up her end, sometimes fending off advice with “I know!” I invited her to finish unscrewing a partition, and she did it handily, zip-zip-zip. She said the gun was like her dad’s.
Another interesting job was unbolting a small safe from a closet floor. I had to do it thru the safe’s little door. What a fine tool a ratchet wrench is!
After a tasty lunch at Rain City Burgers, I spent the afternoon vacuuming, alternating between a shop vac and an upright. By now the old store was nearly empty, and its floor seemed to go on forever–like mowing a football field by hand.
Across the street, the new store had hastily opened for business, despite a room full of cartons and furniture.
Postscript; at the end of the year, I heard that East West Books is doing better in its new location. (The old store across the street is still vacant; that landlord lost a good tenant.) We came in to do some Christmas shopping. It’s attractive, well-organized (albeit somewhat differently than was intended last spring) and full of interesting stuff. How cool to know that in a small way I’ve helped push back the corporate monoculture by keeping this unique little bookstore alive.