August's Bookstore of the Month is Secret Garden Books

Founded in Green Lake by children’s book author Nancy White Carlstrom in 1977 — she’s best-known for the Jesse Bear series — Secret Garden Books moved to 15th Ave NW in Ballard before eventually settling in to its current location on Market Street. Secret Garden has always been known first and foremost as a children’s bookstore, but when New York bookseller Susan Scott moved to town after over a decade at fabled NYC store Books & Co, she took over the buying and brought in what staffers delightfully refer to as “grownup books.” In the last few years, the clientele at Secret Garden has changed with Ballard’s demographics; now the store sells more “grownup books” than kids’ books. The store’s art section has grown with the adultification of its customer base, too, and staff has gradually learned about visual art and literary fiction as customers have led them in that direction.

Secret Garden currently employs 13 booksellers. Events manager Suzanne Perry explains that for as long as she’s been on staff, the store has always employed exactly one male bookseller. “We’ve always, always, always had one boy,” she says. “It’s not purposeful. I’ve been here ten years and I think we’re on boy four. And they’re interesting boys, too. But the rest are just women, wall-to-wall.” (I chat with The Boy on Staff after talking with Perry, and he admits that he sometimes feels nervous when management interviews another male for an open position.) Secret Garden’s booksellers tend to stay on staff for a good long while. Perry says there’s really only one qualification they look for when hiring: they want people who “you can’t get them to shut up about books. In fact, you have to pay them to be quiet about books.”

The store regularly hosts readings and activities for kids. But many people outside Ballard don’t know that Secret Garden also hosts two very successful book clubs — one for kids and one for adults. “Book clubs are just my favorite thing in the whole world,” Perry says. She heads up the adult chapter, which meets on the third Thursday of every month. “Our book club is awesome,” she says, because it follows one simple rule. “We strictly talk about the book — the literary merits of the book. No personal talk, no comparing it to your own life, none of that bullshit.”

Secret Garden is known for the brick floor of its kid’s section right at the front of the store. The bricks are tightly packed but not mortared together, creating a clickety-clack cobblestone sound whenever anyone walks on them. The bricks and their ambiance have been part of the Secret Garden experience from the very beginning, and authors now sign individual bricks when they read at the store. Perry recalls a time when Twilight author Stephenie Meyer was in the store: “She walked on the bricks and they did not make a sound.” “I poked her in the ribs,” she says, and asked Meyer how she managed to stay silent. “She giggled” in response and then her footsteps started clickety-clacking like everyone else. Perry’s not saying Meyer is supernatural or anything, but she does note that her “skin was a little glittery.”

(UPDATE 4:14 PM: This post has been updated because like an idiot, I got the identity of the author wrong in the last paragraph. It was not Elizabeth Eulberg; it was Stephenie Meyer. Obviously, the story makes a lot more sense this way.)