Rick Simonson happened into a job at Elliott Bay Book Company. Thirty-seven years later, he’s a senior buyer and co-directs the bookstore’s revered reading series. His literary life is international. Rick brings authors from around the globe to Seattle to speak, and he travels widely to serve as a juror for literary prizes. After nearly four decades in the book business, Rick’s work and reading life have inextricably merged.
Valerie Easton: How did you end up working at Elliott Bay Book Company?
Rick Simonson: When Elliott Bay opened in June, 1973, I worked in a restaurant around the corner. I started doing a few odd jobs around the store during its first expansion a few years later. When they realized they needed a second person to work at night, they asked me. No application, no resume. I’ve been resume-less ever since.
How has your job changed over all these years?
So much is different — technology-driven changes, the dynamics and scale of the business, of the city, of the world — yet some constants have been in place since Walter Carr and Nanci McCrackin opened Elliott Bay. We find books to put in the hands of readers, book-by-book, person-by-person, day-by-day. It’s been that ever thus.
Has Elliott Bay’s move to Capitol Hill been a success?
I had initial misgivings about leaving Pioneer Square, but now we’re near schools and restaurants and playing fields. There’s great energy up here.
You must have met a great many authors over the years
I love it that we’ve championed and presented the most local of writers, have programs in languages other than English: Korean, Arabic, Mandarin, Lushootseed, Spanish, Farsi, and Japanese to name a few, of many from far and near.
Every day there’s potential to be impressed by who comes our way. It was true with the first authors who read here: Paul Hansen, Sam Hamill, Belle Randall, Connie Martin and Barry Lopez back in 1980-81. We started presenting authors in a more earnest fashion with Joseph Campbell in 1983, and Lewis Hyde in 1984, all the way up through Vancouver curator/writer Rachel Poliquin who spoke in February about her book, "The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing" — a fascinating work.
You traveled to India recently to interview Abraham Verghese (author of “Cutting For Stone”). Is he working on a new novel?
I was at the Jaipur Literature Festival. I’ve gone the past four years now. The energy and spirit at this festival is unique and compelling.
Abraham first came to Elliott Bay nearly twenty years ago, when his first book, "My Own Country," came out. We’ve known each other ever since, but had never gone that far to visit. At Jaipur, we talked about "Cutting for Stone," about India, about teaching and practicing medicine, which he continues to do at Stanford. It seemed like many audience members would like to be patients of his. People were keen to meet him, understandably. He is at work on a new novel — some of it, at least, set in India.
What books are lying open on your nightstand right now?
Every day there is certain reading I like to do – old poems, and some major old epic or saga, at the rate of a few pages a day. I’ve just started Robert Fagles’ translation of Virgil’s “Aeneid.” This part of the nightstand may be my favorite; I slowly read books like “The Arabian Nights,” “The Iliad,” "The Odyssey,” and “The Upanishads.”
I’m reading Diana Eck’s “India: A Sacred Geography” very slowly, and I try to read a few pages a day of Robert Calasso and Michael Meade, who are both writing about myth and story in ways that feel necessary.
I do read some books with more dispatch: the forthcoming big historical narrative by William Dalrymple, “Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-43”. It’s coming out on May 2. And “The Walking,” a second novel by Laleh Khadivi, a young Iranian-American. Seeing her in Jaipur, then reading this book has been a revelation.
I’m finishing a book coming out this fall, “The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons,” a collection of stories by master Iranian writer Goli Taraghi. Her stories are beautiful and subversive — subversive in the ways of the heart.
Are there any well-reviewed books that you don’t feel lived up to the hype?
I tend to avoid books that are hyped, and I know I’ve missed good books this way.
Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?
One book that may not be great-great, but is truly wonderful, is a novel just being published here by a writer from Indonesia named Andrea Hirata. It’s “The Rainbow Troops,” a coming-of-age story, really, about an impoverished village of schoolchildren and their intrepid teachers on an Indonesian island. It’s a book of spark and great spirit.
Perhaps more truly great is a first novel coming out in March by Taiye Selasi. “Ghana Must Go,” is a fabulous work of voice, story, and insight — the stories of four grown children of an immigrant couple. Selasi will present a reading for Elliott Bay at the Northwest African American Museum on March 21.
What were your most cherished childhood books? Can you name a childhood favorite that influenced you?
Interesting question. My imagination as a child was probably more visual than verbal. Pictures in books (and comic books) totally took me. There are now these reissued editions of some of the Little Golden Books. Sometimes I stumble into them at the store and can get taken back. A picture of baked goods in a shop window on a winter’s night and I’m there at age 3 or 4.
Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years?
There are many books I would like to get back to but probably won’t. I am constantly reading and re-reading Robert Calasso’s reconstituted book of Greek myth, “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony” and its companion volume of Indian myth, "Ka." The epigraph in “Cadmus and Harmony” is ”These things never happened but are always.” To me, his work is always.
When and where do you settle down to read?
My best and favorite time is early morning. It’s the quietest time. Reading then is mostly in bed, with coffee. I love to read outdoors, too, though and do so whenever possible, daylight and rainfall allowing.
Any book you’ve read lately that really caught your imagination, inspired you, or changed how you look at the world?
Many. A recent book that I thought was brilliant in how it described work, especially numbingly hard physical work, and being part of an odd, chosen clan for that work and that conveyed this part of the North American landscape incredibly vividly, is a delightful book called “Eating Dirt” by B.C. writer Charlotte Gill. My own work is not so physically intense, but I thought of what I do — the seasons and cycles of it — differently after reading this book.
Can you speculate a bit on the future of the book as we know it?
You don’t save the least for last, do you? Speculation is all I can offer.
When Elliott Bay started 40 years ago, no one was suggesting a major place in the scheme of things for us. I don’t think any store that has survived all these years has done so easily. And, of course, a great many haven’t survived.
There is and will be a place for electronically-conveyed books, though how those get delivered, how people find out about them, is subject to question and concern. The jury is still out, so far as I know, on what electronic reading does to the brain, to memory impulses, to body memory.
I’m heartened by the energy of the young, newer booksellers hard at it in places like Brooklyn. I’m excited locally to see what Janis Segress and friends do with the rebirth of Queen Anne Book Company. The more like this, the merrier. Books as gifts, books as carriers of human affection, still count for much. People like to give each other things they think will mean something. So far as I’ve seen, a download of a text doesn’t usually mean the same thing as a physical book.
Elliott Bay’s Birthday: Elliott Bay Books turns 40 on June 29. Check out its website for celebratory events and special programs.
What Val’s Reading This Week: “Georgia O’Keeffe and Her Houses: Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu” by Barbara Buhler Lynes and Agapita Judy Lopez is a visual feast of a book, with a text as intriguing as the photos. O’Keeffe lived in the New Mexican desert for nearly forty years. The authors have captured the synergy between O’Keefe’s paintings and collections and her love for her houses (she constantly tinkered and remodeled), her garden and the desert landscape.