The education of Mercer Street Books

Our bookstore of the month for August is Mercer Street Books. You may have read Paul's first three pieces on the store, from the previous Wednesdays of this month. He mentioned that owner Debbie Sarrow kindly agreed to be the mail-drop for SRoB, and to the cynical mind that might explain why we picked Mercer Street Books as our first pick: a little quid pro quo, right?

What it doesn't say, though, is why we asked Debbie if she'd agree to help us in the first place. We asked her because whenever Paul and I talked about Mercer Street Books, and Debbie, it was an unbridled gush-fest.

Mercer Street Books is my neighborhood store, right down the street from where I live. I've been on Lower Queen Anne (or Uptown, depending on your micro-local political beliefs) long enough that I remember when the Chase bank across the street was Tower Books, and where Debbie's store is now, was Titlewave. I liked Titlewave, I used to attend reading there on occasion. I liked Twice Sold Tales, although cats in bookstores are bad news, in my opinion (litterboxes, allergies, claws), and their selection was never top notch. I liked those stores, but I absolutely love Mercer Street Books.

That love was a slow process. The first time I came in six years ago, right after Debbie took over, it was with medium expectations, and gratitude that the space stayed a bookstore. It was cleaner than Twice Sold Tales, and I was happy to find the selection was better. Better, meaning: deeper, wider, more discriminatory. There was less cruft, and more gems, all at fair prices.

I brought her some books to sell. Good stuff, to see how well she paid, and found that Debbie was selective about what she'd buy. Those books she said yes to, she paid well for. That means more discerning sellers find her, and bring her good things, which means her shelves have good turn of quality, compelling works. More buyers come in and take away those good books, and there's the money for the next batch. It's a virtuous cycle.

After getting to know her, Debbie would email me about books she just got in that she thought I'd be interested in. She knew I loved obscure typography books, NYRB reprints of children's classics, certain cookbooks, and occasionally the odd-ball wildcard guess. I didn't buy everything she set aside, but I'd say I did buy about 80% of them. I like to imagine the card catalog in her mind, with each customer and the things they love.

If you aren't local and call her to see if she has a certain title in and she sells it to you, she cares about how well it is packaged. The presentation of her store, even when coming to you in the mail, is important to her.

My son has grown up going to Mercer Street Books. He just turned five, and we have a little routine. He goes to the children's section, sits next to the shelves, and picks out any book he would like to thumb through. He makes a little pile, and when I'm done looking around or chatting with Debbie or Red or Aaron, or done looking around at the latest arrivals, we put them back where they belong, and usually bring one to the front to take home. To him, Mercer Street Books has been around forever. These are the people in his neighborhood. Even when we're not stopping in, when the weather is nice and the front windows are open, he'll yell in a hello to Debbie or Red as we pass by. "Let's go to see Debbie" is a favorite tactic of mine, to motivate him, used like I also use going to get ice cream, or a trip to the park.

There are so many metrics to measure how wonderful a store is: how organized it is; how clean; how it smells; how often new works come in; how attentive the staff is while still giving you the time to browse and spend time in your head; how good the recommendations are. On all the scores, Mercer Street Books is aces. They stand out, and it is a rare store I'd give such high marks to across the boards.

So, why did we pick this store to be our first, when there is an embarrassment of riches in Seattle, with regards to bookstores? We did it because the store really is as great as we say it is. But, there's only one way to prove us right. Go visit. Tell them that the Seattle Review of Books has been waxing their car to an impossible gloss, and you want to make sure they're really all that. Go in cynical and disbelieving, even. Wear a scowl. I'd lay odds you come out impressed (likely with something new to read when you get home).

If it's true, as Susan Sontag says, that "A good book is an education of the heart," then Debbie Sarrow is a fine cardiologist.

Watch this space next week for September's bookstore of the month.