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BLMF: Books for all Seattle's motherfuckers, including those just passing through

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Photo by Lindsey Anderson
Photo by Lindsey Anderson

Deep in the bowels of Pike Place Market sits one of the city's finest collections of used books, in a store perhaps better known by tourists than locals. Owned and operated by J.B. Johnson for the last 25 years, BLMF Literary Saloon has become a must-see destination for anyone caught in the tourist trap that is the Market.

"It stands for 'Books Like a Mother Fucker,'" Johnson said of the acronym sometimes misinterpreted as an affiliation with Black Lives Matter.

"People ask me that all the time. If they look hip enough, I'll say 'Books Like a Mother Fucker.' If not, I'll make something up."

BLMF is a unique store in that it mostly sells books to tourists, which means that the titles Johnson stocks can sometimes be all over the place.

"I never know who's going to ask me for what next," Johnson said. "Books that would sell downtown or in Capitol Hill or Ballard, those could be doorstops here. But then other stuff that I totally couldn't move in another neighborhood, I could just blow right through here.

"There's a book called The Alchemist, and it's very popular. I've probably sold more of that than anything else. Another book called The Road, I still can't believe people will give me $9 for that. I'm very happy about that, because that's easy to find."

BLMF is so popular among tourists that some visit the store every time they stop in Seattle. "People who know about me know about me. We do have a small online presence, but most of my traffic comes from people coming from the Market," said Johnson.

"I just had a guy in here who came in yesterday. He's from South Africa. He comes to Seattle like once every three or four years, and he always stops by here, all the way from South Africa. I was amazed and so flattered by that."

A unique collection in the Market
Working in Pike Place has its ups and downs for Johnson. "The Market is great — most days. It is the biggest tourist trap on the West Coast, which can be good for business," he said.

However, he noted that selling books could be easier in other areas. "If I had, say, a neighborhood store, you know like Twice Sold Tales — people go to Twice Sold Tales looking for books. Some people will come in here just because the door's open, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes it gets a little wearing."

BLMF is a used bookstore, but that doesn't mean all its titles come from donations. "If you just took donations, you're going to get a bookstore full of Louis L'Amour and Danielle Steel, which I don't want. I buy stuff from people on the street, I get books from all the spots — libraries, yard sales, etc."

Johnson also gets books from people looking to sell to local shops. "I get a lot of travelers through here, so I get people who are surprised to see something that just came out. I get tourists who have stuff left over that they don't want to put in their suitcase.

"Seattle is also a very literate town, so I get people who love books but don't have the space to sit on them in their tiny apartments."

Photo by Lindsey Anderson  

While Johnson has a myriad of titles in the store, he knows just what titles to put on display to catch readers' eyes. "I've been doing this for 25 years. If there's something that looks cool, I put it up. If there's something that just came out, or has anything to do with what's on TV, or if Oprah or Reese Witherspoon recommended it, I will put it on display," he said.

"I have a particular perspective on what I think is worth reading," he continued, "and like I said, I've been doing this for a long time. It's a great place and a mellow atmosphere down here, and I've become good at making recommendations. It depends on what people are looking for, but I can usually match the person to the book."

BLMF has many sections with various genres for just about any reader, including some LGBTQ+ titles, like new ones from the popular author Aiden Thomas. "I have a gender studies section, but it's small," Johnson said. "Usually, when people are selling LGBTQ+ books, they sell to Jamie [at Twice Sold Tales] up on Capitol Hill, which is fine. When people are looking for LGBTQ+ books, I always refer them to her."

While he sells all kinds of books, Johnson admits there are some he refuses to buy. "I sell a little bit of everything down here. I have no idea who is going to ask me for what next, so I try to stock a little bit of everything for everybody. Except I don't stock Ann Coulter, I don't stock Bill O'Reilly books, no, no, no. You want that shit, you can find them at Goodwill for $3, no problem."

Johnson also loves to give book recommendations. For the SGN book club, he recommends a thrilling crime series. "So, this is called Blacktop Wasteland. It's one of the best crime novels I've read in the last five years, and this is the follow-up, called Razorblade Tears — it has an LGBTQ+ slant to it, so this is something I've been recommending to people.

"Crime novels are my favorite genre, and this guy is the best in the business right now," he added.

Photo by Lindsey Anderson  

One of Washington's only Black booksellers
While many things make BLMF unique, the most special part of the shop is perhaps Johnson himself. "I just thought of another thing that makes this store special," he said. "There might be one other guy, but I think I'm the only Black-owned bookstore in town, which makes me possibly the only Black-owned bookstore in the state, which makes me one of the only Black-owned bookstores in the country, so, there's that. And that gives me a particular perspective."

Johnson's perspective truly is special. His witty banter and expert sense of humor are what charms customers and calls them back to the store, even if they've traveled hundreds of miles to be there. Johnson is a book lover who encourages everyone who stops by BLMF to keep reading, and most likely knows exactly what your next favorite novel will be.

For the SGN's readers, Johnson has a special message: "Anybody out there listening: don't come at me with 'I don't have time to read.' Everybody has time to read. If you have a favorite TV show, you have time to read. If you spend more than half an hour on Facebook, you have time to read. If your Clash of Clan's castle is higher than ten, you have time to read. So just read."

BLMF is located on the third level of the DownUnder of Pike Place Market and stocked floor to ceiling with all sorts of literary treasures just waiting to be discovered. More information is at https://www.pikeplacemarket.org/vendor/blmf-literary-saloon/ and Instagram https://www.instagram.com/bookslikeamotherfucker/.