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A new “community of the book” begins in Seattle

An entrance to the Seattle YMCA, where Folio: the Seattle Athenaeum will be housed. Credit: Orin Blomberg/Flickr

Seattle often is touted for its literary bona fides. We frequently top the list of America’s “most literate” cities (we’re currently number 3, following Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis). We’re also among the most-educated U.S. cities (Forbes ranks us number 6, above Boston). We’re home to a great bookstore, Elliott Bay Book Company, known nationally as a must-stop for touring authors. Hugo House is a major center for creative writing classes. We’re headquarters for Amazon and Microsoft, corporations that—for better or worse—are changing how and what the world reads. We even have an author whose work is on the list of most-banned American writers (congrats, Sherman Alexie!).

There is also a recent effort to win recognition as one of UNESCO’s Cities of Literature, a global network of cities—Dublin, Edinburgh, Iowa City—with a strong commitment to the written word. Recognition of the value we place on the literary life is a way to temper a Seattle brand identity that is usually burnished by the business community: a tech city, trade city, city of cranes.

The roots of our higher literary aspirations go back to an April day in 1868 when Sarah Yesler and 49 others gathered near the town sawmill to found the Seattle Library Association with the purpose of promoting “mental culture and social intercourse.” The town, known more for its frontier brothels, wanted to set a new course for intercourse.

The Library Association and its successors had a bumpy ride. In his history of Seattle’s libraries, Place of Learning, Place of Dreams, John Douglas Marshall writes that it was not long before “attendance dropped, books disappeared. Cultural efforts proved hard to sustain in a frontier town.” Seattle’s first library died, was resuscitated, relocated and then absorbed into other entities, eventually providing the impetus for the formation of our public library system.

The lit life in Seattle is still evolving, and if you ask David Brewster, it still needs work. Brewster, Crosscut’s former publisher and founder, has been busy trying to stretch Seattle’s collective brain for years, and I’ve worked with him on more than one of his ventures. When the city lacked critical restaurant reviews, he started the Best Places guides. When we lacked a first-rate regional trade publisher, he launched Sasquatch Books. When we needed a serious newspaper to cover politics and the arts, he launched Seattle Weekly. He thought it would be cool to have a place for civic-minded sorts to hang out, so he started the short-lived Mark Tobey Pub. He thought Seattle needed a central place to gather, and the result was Town Hall. After he “retired,” he launched the online news website Crosscut. Whenever Brewster “retires,” you can bet there’s another big idea gestating.

A new one is about to hatch this fall. While the focus of our literary ambitions is on writers, booksellers and Kindle evangelists, Brewster has zeroed in on what he calls “the community of the book.” A big chunk of that community is you—the reader. Chalk it up to the fact that Brewster is a former English professor, but he wants to bring together Seattle’s readers in a comfortable, collegial environment designed to appeal to everyone, rich or poor. “Love of reading,” he says, “ is like mathematical ability—it’s randomly distributed.” Readers come from all walks of life. It’s not simply a matter of education or pedigree. If you have the bug, you have the bug, and Brewster wants to create a place “where people who love books can meet other people who love books.”

So, he’s reviving an old idea: the private library. It was first dreamed up by Benjamin Franklin in 1731, and preceded the concept of publicly funded libraries. People got together to pool their resources to democratize access to information. These libraries, commonly called athenaeums, took off in the United States and Great Britain. There are about 19 still going in this country. Brewster’s is called “Folio: the Seattle Athenaeum” (folioseattle.org). Its collection is formed from donated books from Seattle bibliophiles, people who have collected or accumulated wonderful libraries and would like to retire their tomes to a place where active readers can enjoy them. He expects to be able to gather as many as 50,000 books.

But this won’t be the kind of library where patrons will be shushed. Brewster envisions a clubby atmosphere that appeals to everyman, not literary snobs: There will be common areas where people can talk, write, hold book clubs and discussions. The selection and arrangement of books will be more like a great bookstore. Members of Folio will have borrowing privileges.

There will be readings, lectures and experimental programs, such as having Seattle actors read famous, history-changing lectures from the past. Brewster hopes to partner with groups such as Town Hall, Hugo House and the University of Puget Sound for low-cost or free programming. The objective isn’t a sleepy Drones Club out of P.G. Wodehouse. He envisions attracting young and old through events, a low membership fee ($125 per year and lower rates for people younger than 30 and students) and by having contemporary features such as an area that mimics tech-oriented coworking spaces, but for humanities fans, not digital entrepreneurs.

Brewster says his “aha” moment occurred while visiting one of the most spectacular examples, the venerable Boston Athenaeum with its awe-inspiring library. “It was like going into the show room and seeing a Maserati,” he says. “I thought, I want this.” Folio isn’t a Maserati yet, but it could be a lovable, affordable, functional Subaru at the very least.

Location is key, and Brewster has turned up a gem: the downtown YMCA on Fourth Avenue between Madison and Marion streets. This 1930s Collegiate Gothic building is an historic landmark and features beautiful brick, terra-cotta and tile work. The Y’s mission includes serving a broad downtown constituency: a diverse group of people who use the gym and pool or attend AA meetings or are looking for social services. Folio will have space on two floors and a dedicated entrance on Marion, plus use of some of the Y’s event rooms.

The interior gives the impression of a college library with woodwork and tall windows that let in the light. The street-level nature makes it feel connected to the city while it still retains a sense of refuge. “We want to activate downtown for public benefit” beyond the big institutions like Seattle Art Museum and Benaroya, Brewster says.

Why a nonprofit private library, an idea as archaic as the word “athenaeum”? One need only look as far as Seattle’s wealth of craft distilleries, small-batch coffee roasters and artisans of all kinds to see that old-fashioned ideas can find new life in dynamic urban settings.

Brewster says his project is “a vote for books,” which are threatened in the literary ecosystem. The main objective is to be reader-centric, a place where members can share, talk and fulfill the hopes expressed by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for the town’s tiny, original library association in the 1860s, that it “will be the means of doing an immensity of good” for the city.

This column was originally published in the July edition of Seattle magazine.

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