When you’re sitting in a bookstore café with a fellow book lover, Bad Company belting it out from the speakers behind you, the sun streaming in through skylights, you know things are good. A recent trip to Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle to talk with Jamil Zaidi, a store manager and the current president of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, established that perfect setting. It was my first time meeting Zaidi and, like is so often the case when meeting another bookseller, our love for the industry made for easy conversation.
Last year, Elliott Bay Book Company moved from the historic Pioneer Square section of Seattle, where it had been located since 1973, to the notably hipper neighborhood of Capitol Hill. The move prompted a lot of press and a lot of criticism, but it has turned out to be a smart decision. Capitol Hill is a lively area—both a well-loved neighborhood and a destination for its shops and restaurants—with a lot of foot traffic that finds its way to Elliott Bay both during the day and at night. It helps that the shop is a beautiful expanse of wooden floors and skylights that bring a vast amount of natural lighting—a stop worth making.
Like most booksellers, Zaidi has dabbled at different bookselling jobs. He started at Parkplace Books in Kirkland, where he worked for five years before coming to Elliott Bay, his bookstore home for the last six years. He used to be part of Elliott Bay’s events team, helping set up, coordinate and introduce authors. “I loved meeting so many different authors,” Zaidi says. He was also part of the special orders team, locating rare titles from publishers. “It was kind of fun, calling publishers, tracking down things from Canada,” he says. “It was a good way to learn how the whole system works.”
Zaidi has been a manager for nearly four years, and his responsibilities now include overseeing section maintenance and buying books for the store. Since the move to Capitol Hill, he’s seen a change in what sells. “Surprisingly, philosophy and literary fiction have sold really well here,” he says. “So have small press books and obscure titles.” What would cause such a surge in what are often-ignored sections? “I think with the university nearby, it makes sense that philosophy is selling well. And with the younger population, they’re also the ones supporting literary fiction.”
Five years ago Zaidi was asked to be on the board of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, but wasn’t sure it was something he wanted to do. “I was kind of surprised when I was asked to be on the board because I always had this vision of boards being stodgy suit types, but I talked with Tracy Taylor [longtime EBBCo. manager] who had been on the board, and Paul Hanson, who was President at the time, and thought ‘that sounds really cool!’ Plus I love going to ABA [American Booksellers Association] and PNBA events and talking with other booksellers and sharing ideas.”
Zaidi has since been part of the PNBA’s Literacy Committee, which handles the donation matching program. When a PNBA member bookstore donates to a literacy organization that is active in the Northwest, the PNBA will match the donation up to a certain amount. Along with being President of the PNBA, Zaidi is also part of the association’s Education Committee, which sets up the workshops for its yearly conference. For this year’s conference in October, he’s hoping to have an educational session for bookstores that haven’t yet made the leap to all the new technologies and social media, such as Google eBooks and Facebook or Twitter. “There are a lot of stores who do all of those things, but there are a lot of stores that aren’t sure why they should be taking part in all these new areas. I want to have a sort of ‘pre-info’ session that will offer guidance to store owners so they have the information needed to decide if all these new realms will really benefit them in their particular community.”
Even though Zaidi’s roles have changed in the book world, he holds strong to his roots as a bookseller. Our conversation moved to books we love. Zaidi’s go-to handselling books are The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Life: A User’s Manual by George Perec, which was originally published in France in 1978 and translated to English in 1987. Though not always readily available at distributors, it fits the rise of interest in literary fiction in the new space and Zaidi does his best to keep it in stock. The conversation became even livelier when it turned to the bookseller favorite The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, which will be released in September. What I always tell people about this book is that reading it is like seeing lightning bugs for the first time. It’s a truly magical experience. Zaidi agreed. “There are so few times when I can recommend a book to everyone,” he says. “Most of what I read is kinda debaucherous, so I can’t say ‘Hey 13-year-old girl, read this!’ or ‘Hey 80-year-old man, read this!’ With The Night Circus, though, I can do that.”
After roaming through a couple rows, each of us recommending books with precocious little boy protagonists, a character-type for which we each have a soft spot (Have you read The Borrower? Have you read Enigmatic Pilot? Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close? The Book Thief?), Zaidi suddenly looked past me and said, “Oh, hey there!” I turned around to see a little boy coyly teetering on his heels, smiling at Zaidi, but clearly unsure of me. “That’s my son,” Zaidi says.
“My wife brings him to our story time.” Watching the toddler creep his way to the chair nearby where Zaidi’s wife sat, still keeping his eye on me, I understood Zaidi’s interest in small protagonists. His son is already another book lover in the making.
Lindsey McGuirk began her career in books as the events coordinator for Village Books in Bellingham, WA. She took a two-year stint at Algonquin Books in North Carolina, where she learned about the publishing end of the business, but returned to her true love of bookselling at Village Books in 2009. She is now the Digital Marketing & Publishing Coordinator and handles the online marketing and working with authors to get their books printed on the store’s print-on-demand Espresso Book Machine.