Open Books provides a cozy space for poetry lovers

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Photo by Lindsey Anderson
Photo by Lindsey Anderson

W. Somerset Maugham once said, when referencing the great literary art form, "The crown of literature is poetry." Indeed, if poetry is the crown of literature, then the grand palace of bookstores is Open Books: A Poem Emporium.

Photo by Lindsey Anderson  

Poems galore!
Located in the heart of Pioneer Square, Open Books is one of Seattle's most unique bookstores in that it only sells poetry or books by poets. According to the owner and manager, Billie Swift, the expansive poetry collection makes it unique compared to other indie stops.

Despite "Poem Emporium" being a part of the business's name, Swift says she often encounters customers who are shocked to discover that Open Books only sells poetry. "People will come in and sort of go, 'Wait, wait, are you all poetry?' and you sort of just have to go, 'Yeah,' and they can't believe that something that is all poetry can exist ...looking at how many books are in the space, just... the abundance of poetry... that's always really fun," Swift said with a laugh.

"My favorite is people who are maybe like, 'Oh, well, okay then,' and [then] trying to, if given the opportunity, help them find a book that will move them," she continued.

Photo by Lindsey Anderson  

Connecting with customers
Swift loves to recommend books to her customers. Unlike regular booksellers, however, she has found that doing so allows her to connect with people on a deeper level.

"My favorite thing is when somebody comes in and they are just like, 'I was wondering, do you have any young Queer poets?' and then we just start pulling. And that category is so broad too, so there are questions after that, and it just becomes a wonderful conversation," she added.

While Swift carries many works by Queer poets, the store does not have a specific LGBTQ+ section. Instead, she says the books are dispersed throughout.

"It's just A to Z by author's last names," Swift said as she gave me a tour, "but then we also have all our new books on the table and facing out. That's our effort to give a book a little bit more of a chance before it melts into the shelves.

"Then we have anthologies organized by geography and... by some sort of organizing principle," she continued as she made her way to the front of the store.

Swift said she loves recommending anthologies to new readers, because it gives them a chance to sample many different poets and styles. "When somebody comes in and they're looking for something particular," she said, "sometimes it's nice to direct people to anthologies, because that's a nice way to take in a lot of different poets' names. People can... do that for themselves, but I also love to pull books for people and stack them up on the back table."

Photo by Lindsey Anderson  

A passion for poetry
Open Books carries many different types of poetic literature. "We have some rare and collectible [material], and then we have discounted books, prose, and poetics," Swift said, "so that would be like fiction, nonfiction, poetry books, [and] books written by poets. And then we've got some kids' books and some YA, and we have some local poets."

The store also carries books dedicated to visual poetry. "These are books that are... doing something more than just words on the page," Swift explained. Those books, along with special collections from local poets, can be found at the front.

Poetry is Swift's passion, and she loves to share her joy for the written word with intrigued customers who find their way into the store. Over the last five years, she has helped customers find the right pieces that will move them.

"The thing that I have loved in my time here is the fact that we don't ever sell on the poet or one book. I have... been surprised by how people will come in and go right to the new books... [but] someone is just as likely to go into the stacks and find a book we've had for a couple of years," she said with a smile.

Swift has been the owner of Open Books since 2016, but it was a part of Seattle's community long before then. "When I took over, it had been around for more than 20 years, and now we've been around for more than 25," she said.

"I have always loved books, and I have always been surrounded by books, I love poetry, and I would go to this bookstore. When we moved back into Seattle in 2006, I made a beeline for ...Open Books, and had been a customer there. And then when I heard the owners were retiring, I just couldn't stand the idea of [it] going away."

When Swift took over, Open Books looked different than it does today. "We're in a new spot. We used to be up in Wallingford, and we just moved in here a few months ago," Swift explained.

"I love being here. It's so great. All the buildings around here are so wonderful. I had so much fun at the old store, and there were many things about that place that I really and truly loved, but the busy street we were on was not one of them. So... the quiet of this neighborhood... — the fact that it is a busier neighborhood, but it's also somehow not as loud — is nice."

Photo by Lindsey Anderson  

A room of one's own
Open Books seems to fit right into Pioneer Square, surrounded by old brick buildings and iconic pieces of Seattle history. "It just feels like, when I walk into the store... this is where [it] is meant to be," Swift said.

Aside from orchestrating Open Books' move to Pioneer Square, Swift has also dedicated her time to make sure it emanates a comfy and inviting energy. "A lot of people who walk in say it's very cozy. I'm still getting the lay of the land, but people describe it as cozy, and hopefully abundant in its offerings," Swift said.

"It's very welcoming, hopefully, full of good seating. I wanted to make sure that there were good chairs for people to sit in."

Swift also wanted to make sure that Open Books could be an environment where community members can foster and grow their creativity. In the new location, Swift has set up two open spaces where artists can come and create. "That's what I'm so excited about with this space: being able to offer this room here and a room in the back," Swift said.

"We're renting this space out for people who want to use it as a studio, but also anyone who wants to do some project and wants a space to escape into and rent. I would love people to contact the store, because offering space for people to do their work [is] one of the great benefits to where we are," she continued.

The workspace fits right in with the cozy atmosphere, complete with a conference table, a big comfy chair, and even an antique record player. "In the back, we're looking forward to creating opportunities for people to come and print zines, pamphlets... chat books," she added.

"Right now, it's difficult because COVID sucks, but hopefully, at some point, there will be a little bit more of that, and people will be able to come together to make art and address all of this."

While the world is definitely in a difficult place, Swift believes that art is one of the solutions. She hopes to help Seattle continue finding and creating art through her shop.

Photo by Lindsey Anderson  

Poetry: nourishment for the soul
Swift also believes poetry can be a form of healing for those feeling weighed down by all the overwhelming events of the 2020s.

"I think poetry has the same benefits as a lot of art, which is that it allows people to escape into or from whatever they're experiencing," Swift said. "I think poetry does that very well. ...I think how poetry works in terms of using language and time... the act of solitude and the encounter with the poem can help unlock that escape into or from one's own experiences."

Swift also noted that poetry is a unique art form in that there are numerous ways of interacting with it. "There are also so many ways of engaging with poetry. Some people only engage with poetry by listening to it or attending readings, or as some kind of spoken or auditory experience. It's not necessarily just the page experience. The construction of the poem is so dependent on the rhythm that you can experience something without your brain fully comprehending it. You're still understanding what's happening, because there's some rhythmic pulse that is being captured that is branded in all these things."

No matter what type of poetry you prefer, Open Books has hundreds of options for you. If you're searching to heal, feel, or escape into a world of your own, Swift is ready and waiting to recommend just what your soul needs.

Open Books: A Poem Emporium is located at 108 Cherry St. and online at https://openpoetrybooks.com/.