Thanks to Spokane author Shann Ray for kicking off our series of NW authors writing about their favorite indie bookstores with this tribute to Elliott Bay Books. It makes a trifecta of tributes for Ray, who wrote earlier this year for the Tin House blog about his hometown store, Auntie’s, and the first bookstore he loved, Elk River Books in Livingston, Montana.
Ray, when he’s not playing hoops with Jess Walter and Sherman Alexie, is writing stories that are “lyrical, prophetic, and brutal, yet ultimately hopeful.” (Dave Eggers). His collection American Masculine (Graywolf Press) was named by Esquire as one of “Three Books Every Man Should Read” and was selected by Kirkus Reviews as a Best Book of 2011. It won the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize and was the winner of an American Book Award in 2012. His work has appeared in Poetry, McSweeney‘s, Narrative, Story Quarterly and Poetry International. Ray grew up in Montana and spent part of his childhood on the Northern Cheyenne reservation. He lives with his wife and three daughters in Spokane, Washington where he teaches leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University. He is currently at work on a novel titled Blood, Fire, Vapor, Smoke.
On the Seattle skyline the Space Needle and the amber glow of skyscrapers rise against the rugged backdrop of the Olympic Mountains. Lush rainforest seems to want to grow at a rate that might swallow a city whole, but for the highways and byways on which people move in their fast machines and make their way like citizens of a future world.
In all of life, there exists the sacredness of the old and the beauty and bustle of the new. The more I age, the more I recognize these two dimensions: the kindness of a good grandparent holding the vibrant life of the new grandchild, the endurance and discipline of achievements that only maturity and time can bring alongside the sheer strength and fire of the young—the cathedral and the new urban architecture where the young gather to make their ascent. At the Elliott Bay Book Company these two paradoxes are met in one gorgeous place, a place to gather, a place to find the treasures of old as well as the fresh destiny of the new, to walk away with cherished books in hand that will take us down into the great dream once again so that when we emerge we are more elegant and profound.
Seattle’s Capitol Hill business district is now Elliott Bay’s home. The old site is still held like a gem in the heart of many the store’s customers, and the owners have sought to do them justice in the open spaces and cedar book shelves and basement reading room of this new and spacious home for booklovers. The space provides a kind of harbor of grace for those who escape the rush of the workday.
I had the honor to read at Elliott Bay when touring for my story collection American Masculine. Having loved bookstores, libraries and book people all my life, the people exceeded expectations and welcomed me with a drink, a smile, and the joy of the evening’s events. There was a buzz of electricity around the reading, and the site was set like a stage for Jazz, with a fusion of light and people, the reading stand and the mike. Family and friends were there, and Seattleites unafraid to engage the moment with sharp wit and with joy and abandon.
Elliott Bay’s own Laurie Paus greeted me and we jumped into a delightful conversation about Robert Frost and his poem Directive, a cathedral of words and life. It was Frost who said he considered himself not so much a teacher as an awakener, and just listening to Laurie and being brought into the love for words that is a palpable essence of her store, I thought of the countless times others and I had walked out of the store with an awakening in our hands, the spine of a book matched to the form of our fingers, a real conversation with a great bookseller on our minds, leading us on a path to the next threshold of life, sometimes through sorrow or desolation, other times through elation, ceremony or celebration.
At Elliott Bay, a truly legendary Northwest bookstore, I came out of that well-lit place into the night having walked for a moment in the stream of Frost’s Directive:
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.