Living in Vancouver, I often ignore the dismal exchange rate and travel to Seattle for a convenient getaway. But I’ve fallen into comfortable habits — favourite restaurants, familiar parks, and cafés that serve as good a cup of joe as I can get in, well, Vancouver.
Yet a familiar travel destination can feel new again when the traveller has a specific lens through which to view it. So after I found out that UNESCO had added Seattle to its list of “creative cities” in the field of literature last year, I decided to build an itinerary around this recent designation and determine whether our unofficial twin city was deserving of this recognition. (I will admit I felt a pang of jealousy that Vancouver didn’t rate; surely we didn’t apply.)
My three-day adventure begins at Couth Buzzard Books in northern Seattle. This lovingly cluttered store carries new and used books, but it’s the folksy atmosphere that makes a lasting impression. During my visit, 20 people participate in a New York Times discussion in a space that also plays host to readings, concerts, Zumba (in a bookstore!) and twice-monthly open mic comedy nights. The events exemplify what an independent bookstore must do in the age of Amazon, which is headquartered just 9.5 kilometres away.
I then make my way to the University of Washington and stroll the campus, marveling at Yoshino cherry blossoms in full bloom. Like everyone else, I click my phone camera in every direction.
The literary highlight of UW is the 76-metre long Reading Room of the Suzzallo Library, with its vaulted ceiling and stained-glass windows. The space is positively Potteresque (Oxfordian, if you prefer to sound more scholarly). I sit at one of the long reading tables and spend an hour soaking in the setting while writing and expanding my vocabulary from a randomly pulled book: Hugh Rawson’s Wicked Words: A Treasury of Curses, Insults, Put-downs, and Other Formerly Unprintable Terms from Anglo-Saxon Times to the Present.
Next, I drive to the Duwamish Tribe’s Longhouse & Cultural Center in South Seattle to learn about people who have been here since time immemorial. As skilled oral storytellers, the Duwamish represent the naissance of Seattle’s robust literary identity. The city gets its name from Duwamish leader S’eey’ahl (or Si’ahl), anglicized to Chief Seattle.
From the road, a large orange silhouette of S’eey’ahl hangs on wire netting, along with the message, “Chief Seattle is watching.”
Inside the longhouse, the yellow cedar posts and plank benches make a grand statement but it’s the “basket floor,” a seeming patchwork of two-by-four plank ends of varied hues, that elicits the greatest awe. Upon leaving, I buy a copy of David Buerge’s Chief Seattle and the Town that Took His Name.
Being a city known for literature, speaking events are easy to find. I trek from my downtown hotel later in the day to Capitol Hill to hear author Charles Johnson speak on storytelling at the intimate, well-worn Annex Theater. The event is sponsored by Hugo House, described online as “a place for writers, with a concentrated focus on helping anyone who wants to write.” People wait by the will-call table, hoping a seat will open up for this sold-out event.
The second day opens with coffee and a cherry blossom-glazed doughnut at Top Pot, a too convenient half-block from my downtown hotel. This flagship store of the beloved Seattle-based chain continues the literary theme (and justifies my sugar indulgence) with floor-to-ceiling shelves of hardbound books, the old kind with gold embossments and no pictures on the cover. One title, Career by Proxy by the prolific Faith Baldwin, intrigues but, alas, this is one time when a line moves too fast.
My visit to the Museum of Pop Culture, a funky Frank Gehry-designed building in Seattle Center, focuses on its Science Fiction Hall of Fame room where people of all ages bounce from display to display, freely exposing their inner geek while viewing iconic costumes, props and manuscripts. I squeal upon seeing pages from a colorfully marked-up handwritten manuscript of Jack Vance’s The Face and pages from Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. I meander elsewhere, pulling an oversized storybook door to explore a separate fantasy exhibit where I follow simple steps on a screen to create my own fantasy world.
As it’s a sunny day, I then head to the Washington State Ferries Terminal and board as a foot passenger to Bainbridge Island, a blank slate on my agenda. Disembarking, I follow the swarm of pedestrians and come upon the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, the first building on the main strip. The museum includes several impressive current exhibits, but with my literary focus, I check out the second floor’s Sherry Grover Gallery, also known as the Book Room, to view “Artist’s Books: Chapter 13 – Lyricism & Laughter,” a deserved spotlight on handmade pop-up books, including many from the collection of BIMA founder Cynthia Sears.
Back on the ground floor, I linger as a string quartet plays. After strolling through galleries and the warm, wood-floored Eagle Harbor Book Co., I make the return ferry trip, a chance to watch an eagle soaring over the island’s shoreline before gazing at the Seattle skyline in the other direction.
I rush to quirky Ada’s Technical Books & Café to order a tasty kale and squash salad before the full kitchen closes at 5 p.m. Described on its website as a place “where the technical mind finds what it craves,” it is named after Ada Lovelace, a 19th-century English mathematician sometimes regarded as the first computer programmer. My eyes dart everywhere, taking in the gadgetry and decor while finding amusement from titles such as Cyborg Anthropology, High-Security Mechanical Locks and Visual Guide to Lock Picking.
Downtime after dinner allows an unhurried must-stop at Elliott Bay Book Co., a glorious environment for bibliophiles to discover new titles. Walking the wood floors, I peer up at the exposed wood trusses and pipes in this airy space. As with most independent bookstores in Seattle, Elliott Bay has innumerable handwritten staff recommendations dangling from shelves. I manage to limit myself to one purchase — Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, inconspicuous on a bottom shelf except for its recommendation tag.
Brunch at Bookstore Bar & Café kicks off the final day. Not ready for either the “Boo Radley Sour” or the “Good Night Moon” cocktail, I sit in a sturdy oak library chair and order quinoa pancakes (albeit with bourbon syrup). The decor captures a bookish setting, with a library ladder and a large liquor selection filling shelves around a bar adorned by library lamps.
My final chapter is a self-tour of the stunning Central Library. Designed by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Ramus and completed in 2004, it’s a geometric wonder of steel and almost 10,000 windows. The interior pops with bright colours, including a pink rubberized floor in the children’s area, space age chartreuse escalators and blue, red and purple seating in the 10 floor reading sanctuary. From an overhang on the 10th, I peer down at the floors below and fight queasiness as I snap pics.
Heading home, I am newly inspired to write, determined to seek out my own city’s literary treasures and excited about returning to this City of Literature for more focused events and adventures.