Christy McDanold had shopped at Greenlake’s Secret Garden Bookshop, although she wouldn’t call herself a regular. But when in January of 1995 she got a notice from the store announcing a going-out-of-business sale, she decided to get into the bookstore business. She’d never owned, worked at, or even considered the economics of running a bookstore before, but throughout the winter and into the spring she kept “talking and thinking about it.” She didn’t have any real credentials for bookstore ownership. “I went to 29,000 banks,” she says, adding, “I’m only exaggerating a little bit.” They all rejected her. Finally, one woman named Sean at Seafirst Bank was willing to take a chance on McDanold, and she successfully bought Secret Garden.
The physical store had already closed, but McDanold was convinced that the Secret Garden name and reputation was worth the effort of basically rebuilding it from the ground up. Most of the calls she fielded between the store’s closure and resurrection “were about the doggone bricks.” Everybody wanted to buy Secret Garden’s iconic bricks if they weren’t going to be used, but McDanold assured the inquirers that the bricks would remain an integral part of the reopened bookstore.
As spring gave way to summer, McDanold found herself in a race against time. After many weeks of searching, she found a space in Ballard, but the store had to open by June 12th, when Secret Garden’s previous owner had arranged to bring A Wrinkle in Time author Madeleine L'Engle to town. “I met with [publisher] reps at our kitchen table while my husband built the space out” over the course of a few weeks.
They made it, just barely. Secret Garden’s grand reopening in Ballard was headlined by L’Engle. “That was a lovely day,” McDanold says. “Madeleine was wonderful and gracious. At that point she was in her 80s and we put her in a rocking chair and people kind of knelt in front of her,” which McDanold said gave the appearance of L’Engle’s readers “worshipping at her feet. She was delightful.”
There have been a lot of good days since then. In 2000, the shop moved to the former Crown Books space on Market Street — where it still stands today — and it started carrying grown-up books along with kids’ titles. Ask McDanold to name some of her favorite moments, and it’s basically a highlights reel of children’s literature from the last two decades. For instance, when the store brought Redwall author Brian Jacques to town “we had a line around the block,” she says.
All of the Harry Potter release nights “were so much fun.” McDanold remembers the first time Scott Simon raved about the Potter books on NPR, “we could almost hear the metaphorical tires screeching” as cars pulled to the side of the road and owners called the store to reserve copies. J.K. Rowling came to town before the second Potter book was published in the United States, and McDanold recalls her promising to never license out Harry Potter toys or movies. “I can’t imagine how hard it was for her” to shoulder the demands of that kind of Beatles-like global popularity, McDanold says, “so I’m not cross with her” for going back on her word.
But most of all, the relationships she’s built at Secret Garden have made the whole endeavor worthwhile. McDanold is especially proud of all “the young people that have come through as booksellers who have gone on to be fabulous grown-ups. “ She says “we’ve had Secret Garden babies and weddings.” When McDanold talks to strangers about being a bookseller, “they say, ‘oh, you must really love books.’ But people who just love books and who can’t throw their arms around people don’t make it in this business.” Between the booksellers, the readers, the kids, the publishers, and the authors, she says, she’s spent time with “the swellest people ever.”
Thinking back to those early days in 1995, McDanold seems almost surprised by her own tenacity. “I don’t think I’ve ever been as single-minded” as she was about buying Secret Garden, she says. “I just knew I wanted to do this. It was kind of nutso.” Her husband Scot had always dreamed about putting the whole family on a sailboat and living at sea, and in her obsessive ambition to purchase the bookstore, McDanold hadn’t realized that she was changing her family’s ambitions forever.
“One evening I was like, ‘oh, honey what have I done?’ And he said, ‘don’t worry about it. I’ve never been prouder of you.” McDanold never doubted that for a second. “He was a good husband. He never turned back, he never regretted it. Ultimately he came to work in the store and we had a couple of great years,” she says. The shop that he helped build continues in that spirit today, and will continue for years to come.