A clean, well-lighted bookshop

Butcher, baker, bookstore-maker: the politics and perserverence of keeping a haven for books open in these times, in this Seattle.

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Peter Miller's architecture and design bookstore on Seattle's First Avenue

Butcher, baker, bookstore-maker: the politics and perserverence of keeping a haven for books open in these times, in this Seattle.

Strange it is, the people who quite honestly admit it is one of their dreams to open a bookshop. No one wants to be in the book business. Even the book salesmen, they would never dream to open a shop, and it is never a good sign when the salesmen themselves are heading South.

The book business is the Baghdad of retail, a symbolic and real place where the forces, the forces of realism and tradition, or sentiment and realpolitik, or intelligence and opportune cunning, work out the seating and value. The larger consequences, the implications, the effects — they are all in the stew and the stew keeps threatening to burn the nearest fool.

It is half a fool's deed if you have one, and I have one. But for many reasons, and maybe none more than offense, I have determined not just to keep it but to insist that it work. If it works, then you can do it, and not feel the fool — if it works, then the day is not enough — if it works, then it is always better, but not if you are not better — if it works, then it has respect.

I wear a tie every day, every day but Saturday. Harlan Walker, from Iowa and Idaho, once told me when I asked if he had a pocket knife, he said, if I don't have the knife in my pocket, then I don't have my pants on. It is books, and they should be able to carry the weight.

Here's the story of how the bookstore dream got me.

My dad was from the walk-in-the-snow, save-the-wrap-on-the-orange generation, five brothers, three that die of heart attack, and his father worked three jobs — in New Haven, when Yale was only one thing and New Haven another and each of the brothers was a lamplighter once.

He left to go to Hartford and escape immigrant time and sold clothes out of a car to the colleges I went or wanted to go to. Eventually he borrowed from Henry Ford, whom he had met in the army, enough money to open a shop. History later detailed Ford an anti-semite but my father, from a Russian Orthodox Jewish family, never said a word but thanks.

He was very good at it and, with three kids, he had to make it work. He was sensual, in his way, he could feel the fabric, he could see color and texture and so forth and remember every name, and shirt size, forever. I never could or never had to do most of that. Later, in Italy, I would meet a beautiful young woman who imported Italian fabrics who had fallen in love with him when she would visit the shop with her dad and now she was a famous part of the fashion industry.

Hartford is Seattle. Few understand that but it is deeply true. Both are suburban, love trees, schools, suburbs, houses, parks and such. Insurance was Hartford's Boeing, both cities were third in line to their region. When we grew up, you had to double park to get into the dentist that was downtown. If Gates and Allen do not grow up here, the comparison would be clearer.

I went to Williams College and lied to Yale that I would go there. In truth I knew little about either one. I wanted to teach, so in 1968 entered Harvard School of Education, where I would still be able to get a degree in English if that worked. But, as they say, revolution was in the air, and it was a fine time to be in Cambridge.

I worked part time at Design Research for Roger Horchow and saw my first Aalto stool, hundreds of them, hundreds of colors, and table settings from Arne Jacobsen, and lights and fabric, and I had never seen such a thing. Nor had I seen the ten Finnish young women who came to help promote Marimekko. We lobbed every pitch we had to those ten women, for the entire summer, to worse than no avail. Later, 30 years later in Helsinki, I would meet and ask one of them, how had they been so intractable. She laughed and said, our English was not good.

Nixon and the Republicans had never liked the revolution very much and they ended it by 1970, leaving many of us homeless, at least metaphorically. You did not march westward so much as you found yourself in the West. I had never heard of a Space Needle, nor Puget Sound nor even Mt. Rainier, and neither had anyone I knew so I was shocked to see each of them.

Seattle was quite grim. The houses were selling for $10,000 but they were not selling and they were not worth more. We would go out to Des Moines Way for pasta at Filibertos. I started a general bookshop in Wallingford with Ray Mungo and Judy, as a good place to get mail and meet people and, for that, it worked. But there were a few books on design, typography, Noguchi furniture, a couple houses, Swiss graphics, and I loved them. A book on Katsura for $75 that might as well have been $500. I loved them, but I was shocked they were such a new world to me. I had, after all, been stuffed with some of the best education you could find — but design, that was not any part of it. I could dissect King Lear continuously in a slow car from here to Billings but this was like crossing over a ridge to look out into a valley I had never imagined.

We built out the Elliott Bay Bookstore space and decided to open a design bookshop on S. Washington St., below the Weekly. It was a sweet-hearted building but an awful failure as a store and the bank was after me in six months and I did not have even a biscuit to throw their way.

But one night, walking home to the Market (me and two other loonies lived downtown), I saw a space near Stewart that was closing and somehow, the shop got moved there. And for its first time, it could take a breath. It was the '80s, so there was nothing to holler for but it could breathe. I saw my first copy of GA Houses and I knew it might be ok, if anything else could be as lovely. At the time, only McGraw Hill was publishing and it was as dull as a bus. GA was like being the only kid with a color television, wide screen to boot. I went to Tokyo just to meet them, and they stood at the train station to meet us. We trekked to the University to spend the day with Kazuo Shinohara.

The little space, then alongside the Seattle AIA, was simply too tight. With the help of 25 people who hand carried books across the street, with the book cases that Gordon Walker so brilliantly designed and Dan Van Leeuwen built, we moved into present space, a little suicidal but it seemed worth the bet, or at least it would get it over with. That was 1988: my daughter was born a day later or I would have no notion of the date. Ed Weinstein, like many others, feared for my very breath so he designed cases to fill out the rest of the shop.

It got better but we would have sunk like an engine block had this nose-picking pony-tailed 15-year-old kid not showed up looking for work. We said no twice but he finally got in and promptly took our one computer apart and crashed the hard drive. But he came back the next day with a new hard drive and for months, picked and sat and mumbled while doing something until he proudly mumbled, look at this.

He had written a program for the shop, to buy, sell, order, inventory, correspond, guess. A program we use today, a program that has 17 misspellings (not typos):" sucsessfully," for example. With the patience of a 15 year old, he taught us the internet, the web, the hub. He was a runaway, but when he ran away to college, his father took over as repairman. The director of Windows was our repairman, the most expensive version in the world. We were lucky and had we not been lucky, we would not have been at all.

Our best year was somewhere in probably 2007. But then, just as quickly, it was the worst and it has been part scorched land ever since. Finally, this year, spirits, and it is after all spirits that keep all of this alive, spirits started to improve. And that makes it seem more possible. It is still a difficulty. Seattle is in its deepest, most pasteurized phase, its most common denominator. Left only like this, the whole joint would look like South Lake Union. And taste like it as well.

The internet is a much more suburban, pasteurizing force than the car or the house. A brilliance of much, it is also a virus of killing time and season and place. Fortunately, it will not have its at-bat forever. Seattle has had a sweet independent run since the Boeing collapse, a long period to grow itself, to grow bicycles and wine and honey and music and clothes and coffee beans and private grit, to better learn yes from no — and it will need all of it to stay above the coma of cellphones and the net. A lot has gone by while the citizens are bent head down over their phone or laptop. It is never good, when a lot goes by.

Over the past 30 years in Peter Miller Books, I have been very lucky to meet many wonderful architects and designers. And some lousy ones, but they are few and their stories as ill conceived as they were. Some cannot help themselves, they are determined I stay open and come as a fact. Richard Rogers was in town and stopped in and grumbled, why is there nothing like this in London? Bruce Goff, in blue suit and blue bolo, would quietly stack up books on the counter, then tap them like chips at a roulette table to indicate it was enough. Jean Jongewaard would only come when it was empty and laugh her laugh of a great wide smile, made wider even by the gap in her front teeth, and declare, well, I guess it is on me!

For the most part, I get the best of everyone. They come by themselves, and the books are their privacy. Cecil Balmond had me open the shop and wine after his evening lecture, then bought books for an hour. Ando was leaving at 8 am so we opened at 6 am one Sunday morning so he could buy books and sign every one of his, knowing it would help. Greg Baldwin would come up from Portland and teach his crew how to buy books.

Howard Schultz would buy all his holiday gifts at the shop, coming in very early, laying out post it notes for everyone in his new corporation. It was 1990 and he had a few shops and I had one and we both knew that December 18th was a bad day for a snowstorm.

Years ago, Bill Stout and I were in Milan. He was still practicing and had a client for a Boffi kitchen, a most elegant company. We spent the morning going over options and drawings and schedules and such, but at 12:30, everyone stood up, pulled the cloth blinds down on their street level showroom, locked the door and we had lunch. A little wine, then caffe, then a very light scotch and even a cigarette, then up went the blinds, a little laugh and we started again on the project.

We still make lunch every day in the shop. We have the Market, and fresh bread, olive oil, salt, a couple mixing pans, a microwave from the last office that moved out and left as well a small fridge. It is a moment to relax, to read and eat slowly and talk. And one day, I shall pull blinds down and we will close for a moment, even if only a half hour. And it will seem like progress to me.

I had suggested, when I was on the Seattle Design Commission, that Seattle knows little about taking a break, especially this new striverland Seattle — that for two weeks in the end of August, our best month of weather, that for those two weeks the city close First Avenue, from Virginia to Jackson, to traffic from 1-3 every weekday afternoon, let us all take a walk for these two lovely weeks.

I am a shop. I take it very seriously, often too much. My loyalty, out of loyalty to my true customer, is first to the books. I protect and defend them with all my attention, telling them and myself, fear not, it shall always be books; no matter how false the clock, there will always be the book.

When Marion Weiss, a designer of the Olympic Sculpture Park, was working on her firm's second monograph, she asked for advice. They were not happy with their first volume and I said, well, just look at your library and pick the books that, were there a fire, you would grab those titles. Look at them and try to find a commonality — why, of all your books, have you chosen these? And then, try with all your might to create a new book that might make it into the select pile.

In the end, after first blush and intro and attention, all books come under judgment and some make it through round, after round. The true ones, as they say in Texas, hold water.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Peter Miller

Peter Miller is owner of Peter Miller Books, a store in Seattle specializing in architecture and design books. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.