Profits from poems

While poets are often advised to secure a good day job rather than try to support themselves as poets, two Seattle bookstore owners have done the unthinkable: They make a living selling nothing but poetry.
Crosscut archive image.

John Marshall and Christine Deavel, owners of Open Books. (Lisa Albers)

While poets are often advised to secure a good day job rather than try to support themselves as poets, two Seattle bookstore owners have done the unthinkable: They make a living selling nothing but poetry.

Seattleites John Marshall and Christine Deavel are co-owners of Open Books: A Poem Emporium, one of just two poetry-only bookstores in the U.S. (The other is called Grolier Poetry Book Shop, in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass.) Open Books offers more than 9,000 titles, ranging from formal to experimental poetry.

Sustaining not one but two livings on poetry takes a unique blend of chance and choice. For starters, Marshall and Deavel have the good fortune of doing business in Seattle, which has a claim to the "most literate city" title, notwithstanding Minneapolis' rise to the top last year. Marshall has lived in Seattle since he was in second grade — "I pre-date I-5," he claims — and Deavel moved here from the Midwest in 1986. They've been in the Seattle book business for 20 years, the first seven as owners of a general bookstore also called Open Books, formerly 45th Street Books, located up the street from their current store. The same building once housed Montana Books, which used to be Seattle's famed independent bookstore, in the days before Elliott Bay Book Company.

Secondly, they keep overhead low by staffing the store themselves. This decision is one they've both struggled with and aren't proud of — Deavel says she wishes they could provide jobs for others — but it's one borne of necessity. Employees are usually an employer's largest expense. Neither have they spent money on computer equipment; everything is done by hand, from the inventory to the bookkeeping. They keep a simple spiral ledger by the cash register for tracking sales and inventory and still have them going back to the store's opening. "We read from the ledger on our 10th anniversary, which was a kick," says Deavel. "The aesthetic breadth was astounding."

"If there's anything that gets institutionalized after our deaths, it will be those," jokes Marshall.

Deavel and Marshall are also active poets themselves, which makes them highly knowledgeable shopkeepers who can pull out an obscure title, make the right recommendations, and cultivate a steady stream of repeat customers. Marshall's first full-length collection of poetry, Meaning a Cloud, won the 2007 FIELD prize and was published by Oberlin College Press this year.

Being one of just two poetry-only bookstores in the country often means that people flock to the store from all over, and they spend well. "We couldn't live on Seattle alone," says Deavel. Marshall says that references in Fodor's and Lonely Planet, in addition to old-fashioned word of mouth, make all the difference. In this way, their niche designation earns them advertising they probably wouldn't get as a small, general bookstore. Deavel maintains that although they have fewer customers than a store offering general titles, customers who come to Open Books are more likely to make a purchase. "Your book-to-customer ratio usually goes up" with a specialty store, says Deavel. "Yesterday, I sold 17 books to one person." According to Marshall's records, they averaged between 270 and 290 monthly customers (people who bought books, not just browsed) over the three-year period 2005-07.

The two admit that what really makes a difference to their bottom line, however, is the fact that they own the building that houses their shop. Purchased in 1993 for less than $150,000, it's an old Craftsman-style house on busy 45th Street, a few blocks from the Wallingford neighborhood main drag. The shop is in what used to be a single-car garage facing the street. The house above they've always rented out to tenants; there once was a wine bar and cafe upstairs. Now Deavel and Marshall are renovating the house and preparing to move in.

"For anyone who's in retail today, especially if you're small, if you can own your own building, that makes a huge difference," says Deavel. "So often, I think it comes down to the question, 'How affordable is real estate in this city?'" Deavel says she worries about Seattle's future for that reason, as the owner of the next "funky little shop" might not be able to afford rent.

They also sponsor the Seattle Arts and Lecture series and maintain a frequent presence at Seattle readings. They describe the city's poetry community as diverse and supportive. Other cities, Deavel has heard, tend to be less welcoming of outsiders. "I've always felt that in Seattle, I could go to Slam, I could go to Subtext, I could go to readings at UW, I could go to cheap wine and poetry night, and they'd all be happy to see me," she says.

The downside to such a wide-open community, however, is the absence of a Northwest voice. Marshall has a bird's eye view of the Seattle poetry scene, and he's hard-pressed to identify anything resembling a "Seattle school" in work produced by local poets. There's no singular movement such as the way painting in the Northwest took on an identifiable quality, which Marshall describes as a "misty, transformative art."

Marshall once studied with University of Washington's Nelson Bentley, who emphasized regionalism, encouraging his students to name the indigenous plants — such as salal — and use specific place names, such as Nisqually. "He loved the Northwest," says Marshall. "I think that's not enough around anymore. It was so steeped in regionalism back then that it was almost disgusting. We used to joke that if we saw another poem with salal in it, we'd kill the person."

Still, Marshall believes a Northwest style will emerge. "I'm liking the idea of the weather influencing it, that there aren't any hard edges. Even the urban images dissolve because we have so much rain." The one place where there are distinct commonalities among the region's poets is in the students in UW's creative writing program, who seem uniformly attentive to music in their poetry. "It may be a Seattle-centric thing," he says. "It may come from the teachers because their stuff is so musical."

The two have no grand plans for poetry bookstore franchises or even modest expansion. "We need to be aware of how much we can do," says Deavel. "We've seen too many businesses say, 'Oh, we're going to knock out this wall,' or 'We're going to build this annex,' and then they fold." Still, they have thoughts about selling online, especially since customers find the shop's Web site and expect to be able to order via the Internet. But they are weighing the decision carefully. "I didn't get into the book business to sit at a computer," says Deavel.

"There's not a lot of money in this for us, so there has to be entertainment," says Marshall. "Customers are our entertainment."

"You can buy a book online anywhere," Deavel agrees. "It's the community that matters."


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