A life in service to, and served by, books

As Louis Collins and I discuss his nearly half-century in the book business, it’s impossible for me to not take notice of his goofy blue sweatshirt, which reads “I TOOK THE PLUNGE! SPA HOT SPRINGS MOTEL WHITE SULFUR SPRINGS, MT.” Collins, the owner of our September Bookstore of the Month, Louis Collins Books, comes across as eminently comfortable in his own skin; he seems happy with his lot in life.

Collins frequently shops in other bookstores around Seattle. You might be surprised by some of his favorites; for example, he still laments the closing of the Capitol Hill Half Price Books, which he thought was pretty good for browsing. The location was outperforming its sales goals, Collins says, and only closed because the rent was increased beyond a sustainable level.

So what does he like to read? He begins with the most common booksellers’ refrain: “I read everything.” Then he narrows it down: “I like to read history. I love anthropology detective stories like Tony Hillerman.” Collins is a fan of mysteries that insert readers into other cultures and provide real information; he calls Hillerman “one of the best,” for instance, because when reading one of his mysteries, he learned the difference between the Navajo and Hopi peoples.

The only kind of books Collins isn’t crazy about? Textbooks. “I like to read overviews of things,” he says. He mentions James Gleick’s book Chaos as a perfect example of his favorite kind of reading experience, authors who can provide “an amateur’s view of something in an intelligent way.”

Collins seems happy to have spent his life with books. He admits that at one time not so long ago, if someone came to him with an offer, he’d have “walked out of here with a suitcase” immediately, but now that he’s training a successor to take over, he’s enjoying the business again. “With Bill coming in, the business works. Doing it all myself was unpleasant, but working with somebody who is involved with it and would like to take it to the next level” makes it all rewarding again. Collins, in short, has found his groove again.