Bookstore owner & author Peter Miller: It is not a time of great books

Book City: Miller has been an institution in the Seattle book business for 35 years. His picks for the best of the best in design, architecture and good reading.
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Peter Miller's architecture and design bookstore on Seattle's First Avenue

Book City: Miller has been an institution in the Seattle book business for 35 years. His picks for the best of the best in design, architecture and good reading.

Peter Miller has run an architecture and design bookshop in Seattle for 35 years. Recently, he moved Peter Miller Books three blocks north, into the front space of the Suyama Peterson Deguchi Architecture Building. 

A former member of the Seattle Design Commission and an honorary member of the AIA, Miller lives with his family in Langley, on Whidbey Island and takes the train into town every morning. In spring 2014, Abrams Books will publish his first cookbook, “Lunch at the Shop."

Valerie Easton: What books are open on your nightstand right now?

Peter Miller: My nightstand is skewed a bit. Now I have a cookbook to finish, I’m reading other people’s books about food, to see how and why and what they focus on. Some are well written, some are awful and some are clever — which is sort of in between. At the moment, I am reading a memoir by food editor Judith Jones, “The Tenth Muse, My Life in Food.” It’s so proper I am amused to have nearly finished it. At the end of it are recipes, six of which end with, “serve with a pitcher of heavy cream.”

You’re writing a cookbook? 

A year ago I proposed to Abrams Books that they should publish a cookbook titled “Lunch at the Shop,” a collection of anecdotes and recipes from making lunch at this bookstore for ten years. And they accepted. 

Have you found any cookbooks you admire?

The Canal House Cookbooks, from the restaurant in Lambertville, N.J., are impressive. “The Canal House Cooks Every Day” won the 2013 James Beard Foundation Award for general cooking. 

Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?

Perhaps it is the laptop that has made words type too quickly, but it is not, to my mind, a time of great books. Timely ones, but not great ones. The time will come again, but this is not it. 

I have been reading paperbacks by Evelyn Waugh for example. Now, no one is likely to rush to Waugh, but if you can dig out time, he was a brilliant writer. I am trying to start “Lucky Jim” by Kingsley Amis, and everyone keeps saying how I will love it, but we have just moved the bookshop and my humor is probably too nicked to get the hang of it. I will try again deeper into the summer.

How many years was Peter Miller Books on First Avenue near the market? Why the move, and why now?

I was there for 25 years — my daughter was born the day after we moved in or I would have said 14 years. We moved because we had to. The corner was now too expensive. I wish we could have had a couple more years there — we were not recovered from the past three years of slowdown and fear — but it was not possible. George Suyama, from the architecture firm Suyama Peterson Deguchi asked that we move into his building. It is not as directly linked to foot traffic, but the space is wonderful — it is the proper place for us.

Do you read fiction as well as the design and architecture books you sell at the shop? Do you have a favorite novelist or two?

I was trained to read literature — which means I needed to learn to read for pleasure, for I was trained to probe, not enjoy. Once I finally learned how to combine the two, pleasure and probe, then a great waft of books came by — William Boyd, Le Carre, the Italian novelist Gianrico Carofiglio — that I would otherwise have never seen. Julian Barnes (“Sense of an Ending”) can really write.

For whatever reason, I have a habit of not wanting to know what is popular. So I had no idea that “Mr. Chartwell,” by Rebecca Hunt, was about a big dog and a woman falling in love in London. Reviewers grumbled that the book was a conceit — but if you shut up and simply read it, it was brilliant and true, and that is a lot.

Among all the tempting design books, how do you go about choosing what to stock in your store?

I choose books that, to my intuition, are the true thing — and that is not easy anymore, for some of the true publishers now do some awful books. There is a cleverness in the air — remember when the phrase, “he was too clever by half” was quite clearly not a compliment?

I want books that you are still pleased you have 10 years from now. Or at least five. Or at least you would want to give them to someone else. That is how I decide.

When someone new to Seattle comes into the store and wants a book on local design and architecture, what are your go-to recommendations?

There is not a wonderful book on Seattle — one day perhaps, but not yet. There is a good one: “Seattle Architecture, A Walking Guide to Downtown,” from the Seattle Architecture Foundation. The best guide to Seattle is the suggestions of its citizens.

Any new architecture and design books you’d recommend?

“Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time,” by Jeff Speck is a wonderful new book. “The Greenest Home: Superinsulated and Passive House Design,” is a terrible title and even the cover is terrible, but it’s a very good book and includes two or three Seattle area homes. It’s by Julie Torres Moskovitz. “Five North American Architects,” an anthology by Kenneth Frampton, has two Northwest architects in it — Patricia Patkau of Vancouver B.C. and Steven Holl. 

Are there design/architecture magazines and/or blogs you read regularly? Which ones are your favorites?

I like Metropolis because the authors write well, and the New Yorker because they write wonderfully. Especially Peter Schjeldahl, who brilliantly writes about art.

What were your most cherished childhood books? Can you name a childhood favorite that influenced you?

Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony” nearly ruined me. I can still recall exactly the sound of the boy killing the vulture. I think “Charlotte’s Web” healed me.

Can you think of a particularly powerful passage from a book that’s stuck with you? That you return to? 

“One should never be both corrupt and dreary” — Henry James. He may be lost a little to time, but how he could write.

Have you read a well-reviewed or popular book lately that you felt didn’t live up to the hype?

Every time I read the Sunday New York Times book review I am mad at it — it is a deceit now, a crone and a bore and still I read it.

Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years and will no doubt read again?

For some reason, I can read the Odyssey and be revived, especially the Richmond Lattimore edition. It takes a little time to get the characters all in your mind, but once that is done, it is the story of a man trying to get home.

Do you have a favorite genre? Mystery, sci-fi? Favorite titles?

I can always read a mystery and never a sci fi. Someone suggested I read Benjamin Black, a mystery pen name for John Banville. My plane was delayed for two hours and I hardly noticed and cannot even remember where I was sitting when I read one of his mysteries.  I’ll always read a book by Le Carre or Alan Furst. I loved the Steig Larsson books. I think they’re quite brilliant, with a pulse of the blood of having been written…they’re so alive. 

Do you read poetry? Any poets you turn to often? 

Poetry is the near precise opposite of computers and it will always try to be sort of hip and relevant but it has, and always shall have, only one task — that of stopping you in your tracks and getting you to read, head-down read. Not easy. But if you can, read John Keats.

When and where do you settle down to read?

It is interesting that we must now fiddle a little with where to read. Try to pick a place that is to some degree outside electronics, at least of communication. Once I sit to read, you can visit, but you cannot sit next to me with a computer or a phone.

Any book you’ve read lately that really caught your imagination, inspired you or changed how you look at the world?

“Paris 1919” by Margaret MacMillan. It makes you realize that nearly a hundred years ago, it was much clearer how complicated it all is: Turkey, Syria, Serbia, Morocco, Poland, Russia, humans and politics and nations. And I may never finish it.

What book do you plan to read next?

Honestly, I do not know the answer. I want to read “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914,” a big important new non-fiction title by Christopher Clark. I want to read Edna O’Brien, the Irish memoirist, novelist, playwright and poet. 

What Val’s Reading This Week: Timothy Egan’s latest book, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis” is at heart a history of Seattle. It captures what it was like to live and work here at the turn of the last century. It’s a readable book about a talented artist, young, full of energy, and passionate about his quest to track down Native Americans and photograph them before their lives and ways were forever lost. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Valerie Easton

Valerie Easton started her career as a librarian shelving books at Lake City Library when she was in high school. Now she writes full time, and has authored five books, includingThe New Low Maintenance Garden and her newest title Petal & Twig. She writes a weekly column and feature stories for Pacific Northwest magazine in the Seattle Times.