Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you
If you’re young at heart.
Young at Heart, Johnny Richards and Carolyn Leigh
Once upon a time, probably in the early 1990s, I walked into a small bookshop in Seattle tucked underneath the street and around the corner from my reality. This was the Seattle Mystery Bookshop – an entire shop dedicated to the enjoyment of the art of mystery writing.
There was something illicit about reading mysteries in that era – many people indulged in the habit secretively as if they would be labelled a complete eccentric if they were to be caught reading any form of mystery. My law school employer, a nationally known constitutional law professor, once admitted to me somewhat sheepishly that he “wasted” a good deal of time reading mysteries and wished he could break the habit. He quickly admonished me to keep his secret, obviously regretting that he had let it slip out. His admission came on the heels of finding me holding a new mystery I’d just purchased to read after the conclusion of finals that semester, and it was uttered in the tone of “don’t follow me down this dark path or you, too, may become forever ensnared.” You would have thought he’d admitted to opium addiction.
I was well ensnared by the time I met Bill Farley, the founder of the Seattle Mystery Bookshop, and his henchman, future successor and friend, J B Dickey. Bill made me and every mystery reader who ever came across him understand that we were reputable and honest readers of literature. Whenever I left the shop after a visit (and there were many; I’m certain that I paid the shop’s rent for at least a few months), I was filled with the joy of having mixed with fellow enthusiasts and the prospect of several days of good reading. I began to recognize my fellow customers, many of whom are local legal community luminaries; they acknowledged me as equally addicted as they hustled out the shop’s door with their purchases clutched firmly and furtively under one arm. The only difference between me and most of them is that I usually walked out that same door carrying at least one bag full of books (if not two) and walked proudly down the street with my addiction on full display.
Bill was unapologetic about his life’s mission. In fact he took great pride in having built his shop from nothing into a local institution with a national and even international reach. I met James Ellroy there one day long ago and offered him a mis-bound copy of one of his books, White Jazz, for signing. It had been bound upside down. He took it, told me I had the cover on upside down, took the cover off and “fixed” it, opened it for signing and uttered “what the hell?” After a good laugh, I bought a properly bound copy from Bill and Mr. Ellroy inscribed both to me, urging me to read one upside down and the other right side up. The two copies sit together on my bookshelves today.
But, you reply, James Ellroy is an LA writer, so how can you claim an international reputation for the shop? Pshaw, I respond. Ian Rankin taught me the correct pronunciation of “slainte” in the shop one afternoon when I dropped in purposely to meet him (and I met his wife in the bargain), and I was thoroughly enchanted by Ellis Peters who inscribed a book for me one day when we both happened to drop in the shop simply because we wanted to. Ms. Peters (Edith Pargeter in real life) was a charming woman – a short, elderly sprite with a wide smile and a lovely English accent. Within moments of meeting you, she made you feel like an old houseguest of hers whom she remembered with great pleasure. Since she had dropped in unannounced, neither Bill nor I knew how she found the shop, but find it she did. She obviously knew the value of such a shop and gave it her unhesitating, unasked for support.
Both her then-current book and Mr. Rankin’s sit on my shelves, never to be sold or given away during my lifetime.
Then came a day when Bill told me he was selling the shop to JB. With Bill’s permission and encouragement, I immediately went to JB and offered my services to review the contract. When he responded that he couldn’t afford to pay me, I offered him my special “book shop changing hands rate” – lunch at a restaurant of my choice. When we met at a local Vietnamese restaurant to go over the contract, he was pleased when the bill barely came to $20. Bill later told me that he wished he’d found me first because his lawyer had charged him full freight – then he put his hand on my shoulder and thanked me for helping JB.
To the extent JB needed a lawyer thereafter, I maintained my special rate. We only shared two or three sandwiches in his back office over the years as he never needed much legal assistance. Most of my visits to the shop were as a customer. My wife and youngest son sometimes came with me, and both Helen and Peter added their own selections to the piles of books I managed to buy there two or three times a month. The shop became a destination of choice for me; I would either come at noon on a workday when I needed a break from lawyering and a dose of friendship to buck me up before returning to the fray, or on a weekend when Helen and Peter (and eventually just Helen after Peter left for college) and I needed something satisfying to supplement our weekend’s rest from everyday affairs.
In short, I was enchanted by the shop. It was my Neverland. My love affair with it was enduring, not a mere dalliance. The shop returned my love with the staff’s smiles and snappy lines whenever I came in. They would chat with me for a few moments after my arrival and then leave me alone when the allure of the well-stocked shelves overcame me. When I thought I was done shopping, they would look at my pile of books, shake their heads at its paucity, and augment it with their own suggestions. They would then cheerfully ring up the resulting damage and add it to my credit card balance.
Eventually Sandy began, and JB continued, to publish the shop’s quarterly “newszine” which offered pages and pages of upcoming releases. Upon its receipt, I would eagerly read it, mark it up, and deliver it to JB so that I could be met on the occasion of each visit with an armful of preselected books – an armful which I would personally gather from my designated place on a shelf in the back of the shop and take to the till before perusing the shelves to see if something might have been missed.
I’ve been all over the world with the shop – France, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Turkey, Eastern Europe, Spain, Australia, China, England, Shanghai, Iceland, Finland, Russia, the Baltic states, Germany, Ireland and almost every state in the good old U S of A come readily to mind as places I have been with and because of it. And I have visited some of those places in widely differing eras thanks to the time machines created by the shop’s assorted authors.
It has been one hell of a great ride. But the fairy tale is over now.
It never occurred to me on my visit to the shop in early December 2016 that it would be the last I’d ever make. Oh, I knew JB was facing difficult times. I had played a minor role in a fund-raising effort to keep its doors open during what proved to be its final year. And when a stroke temporarily felled me just before Christmas, I continued to buy books from the shop by mail. But it wasn’t the same as a real visit; I missed seeing my real live friends even though my imaginary ones kept arriving by post.
As I recuperated and relearned how to walk, I kept imagining a triumphal return to the shop, but it was not to be. The Seattle Mystery Bookshop closed its doors last weekend – a victim of changing reading habits, the greed, vice, and monopoly power of on-line sellers, the lack of responsibility shown by my fellow mystery readers (use it or lose it is not just a slogan), and the uncaring attitude toward small businesses perennially evidenced by the City of Seattle (I can only hope that for their sins the Mayor and all of the city council members once frequented the shop and, like me, will never to again be able to do so). I wanted to visit one last time during the shop’s final week of operation, but circumstances forbade it. I wanted to shake the hand of each staff member and thank them for years of joy and the last several years of constant struggle to keep the shop’s doors open.
Fairy tales are supposed to end in “they lived happily ever after,” but this one hasn’t. This one has ended for me in a hug of fond memories and lots and lots of books from the shop still remaining in my “to read” pile. Each time I read one of them, the joy of the fairy tale will come back to me and I will feel good yet again – even as I am learning new ways to feed my habit in the absence of a shop that knew me well and always took exquisite care of my habit’s needs.
I can only hope that JB, Fran, and Amber will come, in time, to feel the same way as I do and realize that the shop’s closing was due to circumstances far beyond their control. Each of them has been a true soldier for Bill’s cause during the last few difficult years. I wish them the peace that ought to come to them from having fostered the reading habits of so many readers over the long years – readers who came in all ages, shapes, and forms to be enriched by their offerings, advice, and suggestions.
I am as certain as I can be that somewhere Bill Farley and Ellis Peters are nodding their heads in agreement with me and wishing all of the troops well.