Creating community at Magnolia's Bookstore

We all read alone.

The printed word offers sanctuary, a wholly individual, subjective escape from the external world. The act of reading is isolating by nature.

And yet, what we read draws us together. Through reading and the inevitable discussions that follow, we share ideas and form connections. These bonds, based on a shared love for the boundless expanses of the realm of the written word, are far more profound than connections made through mere physical proximity.

Magnolia is lucky enough to host a neighborhood bookstore that understands the need for local readers to both engage and retreat.

Magnolia's Bookstore is a place where journeys are begun and where they are discussed. It is also a place to simply pass the time, a part of the daily routine of the neighborhood.

"It used to be that you went into a bookstore just to buy a book and then you left," says Heidi Stauber, a longtime employee. "Now people come to bookstores to spend time. They'll come and meet their friends, sit and read for a while, talk, go get a cup of coffee, let their children play. So it's more of a neighborhood get-together place."

The idea of the bookstore as a gathering place is becoming prevalent in many Seattle neighborhoods. Ron Sher, the developer who purchased Elliott Bay Book Co. in 1999 and masterminded the atmosphere of Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, uses the notion of common space to foster vitality in the surrounding community, as well as in his profit margins.

This is an attitude similar to that shared by both Stauber and Georgiana Blomberg, the owner of Magnolia's bookstore.

"The people who come in here are our friends," Stauber says. "And if they're not our friends yet, we'd like them to become our friends. It's good business, too."

Stauber says she relishes the relationships she's built at the store through common interest and respect. Because of the open communication between the store's customers and employees, the tastes of the neighborhood are reflected in the titles and authors kept in stock.

"We try to please the customers in the neighborhood, obviously," Stauber says. "If two people in the neighborhood request the same book in a short timeframe, we'll start stocking it. So individual customers have a lot of input over what you see on the shelves; a lot more than Barnes and Noble, for instance, where they just stock whatever the publishers are telling them to stock."

In fact, employees at the bookstore maintain a list behind the counter where they jot down books that might interest one of the store's regular customers. "We keep the list so we'll know what to pull off the shelf for her, just in case she stops in," Stauber explains.

The atmosphere of Magnolia's Bookstore is laid back and cozy. As you wander back through the long, railroad-style room lined on both sides with shelves and display tables, the store's open and accessible layout is accentuated with warm, soft lighting and a few well-placed, comfy chairs.

The shelves boast a wide selection of books for all ages, but there is a particular focus on children and young adults. "Kids today are very savvy," Stauber says. "They keep abreast of what's coming out when. We get 8- or 9-year-olds coming in saying, 'what's the publication date for the next book in my favorite series?'"

The extensive children's section covers the majority of the wall on the left-hand side of the store and boasts selections for toddlers, pre-teens and all ages in between. Classics such as "The Runaway Bunny", the "Little House on the Prairie" series and C.S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia" are still popular, sharing space with newer offerings like the feminist fantasy novels of Tamora Pierce, Brian Jacques' "Redwall" series, as well as teeny-bopper fiction like the "Mates, Dates..." series by Cathy Hopkins.

You'll also find a selection of books by Cameron Dokey, the most recent of which are fairytale retellings such as "Beauty Sleep" (her version of "Sleeping Beauty"). Dokey is also an employee of Magnolia's Books and will sign copies of her work upon request.

There's even a section for Manga, the Japanese comics that read from right to left that are all the rage with teenagers these days.

And how about Harry Potter?

"Honestly, in between the books at least, Harry Potter's not that big a deal anymore," Stauber admits. "The series was great, because it got a bunch of kids reading who hadn't been before." She adds that, at first, kids were asking for books similar to Harry Potter, and the store obliged by maintaining a display of adolescent fantasy-oriented literature.

However, Stauber added, most young readers appear to have expanded their interests. "They don't have to have only what they know; they can read other cool and fabulous books of different types."

The rear portion of the store is dedicated to non-fiction sections such as spirituality, religion and philosophy. Alongside are sections for business, self-help, dieting and nutrition.

"All the latest 'improve your life in 10 easy steps' books," says Stauber, laughing. "A lot of times people come back here with their coffee and browse. They usually just want to be alone; they'll sit in a chair and just read for a while. We just let them relax and do their thing for a couple hours, or until they find whatever it is that's going to help them out."

The store sells a lot of instruction books, such as cookbooks, gardening how-tos and travel guides. "We have travel guides, as well as travel adventures and travelogues," Stauber says, adding that staff at the store has noticed that every year some new place becomes the hot travel spot.

"One year everyone wanted to read about Italy because of 'Under the Tuscan Sun,'" she says. "This year I'd say we might be leaning toward Ireland, but I see a lot of books coming out that are geared around African countries... It's hard to predict."

Magnolia's Bookstore also does a brisk business in adult fiction and historical/political non-fiction. Some current popular selections are "The Mermaid Chair" by Sue Kidd (author of "The Secret Life of Bees"), "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed", Jared Diamond's follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Guns Germs and Steel", and George Lakoff's "Don't Think of an Elephant!".

On prominent display is "On American Soil: How Justice Became a Casualty of World War II", a piece of historical non-fiction about a riot and the killing of an Italian POW at Fort Lawton in Discovery Park in 1944. The author, Jack Hamann, is a local writer, and is scheduled to sign copies of his book at Magnolia's Bookstore on April 30 at 2 p.m.

The store is frequented by many local book clubs, and these groups tend to influence each other's reading choices through the display on the store's book club shelf. Among current book club selections are Alan Furst's "Night Soldiers", Monica Ali's "Brick Lane", Ian McEwan's "Enduring Love" and Nathaniel Philbrick's "In the Heart of the Sea".

A club comprised solely of middle school girls and their mothers is reading "Eye of the World" by Robert Jordan (the first in his "Wheel of Time" series).

"This book club is actually doing really great," says Stauber. "It's a neat thing that's happening. It's full of teen girls who are smart and love to read. They and the mothers are doing an incredible job of picking books that they'll all enjoy."

Just as customer requests reflect the selection on the shelves, employee recommendations often influence the tastes of the customers. This is yet another testament to the reciprocal relationship that's integral to Magnolia's Bookstore's place within the surrounding community - that human connection that puts the often-lonely, individual act of reading into a broader, communal context.

"A lot of books sell here because the people who work here have read them and loved them," says Stauber. "Our bestseller list tends to be heavily influenced by what the people who work here read and like.

"Being told by someone that you know that a book is worth reading is so much more real than a blurb on a dust jacket or a published review."

Sean Molnar is a freelance writer and deejay living in Seattle.[[In-content Ad]]