This past Saturday, my Dad and I embarked on what I can only describe as a book lover’s pilgrimage. In case you’re unfamiliar with Independent Bookstore Day, it’s a celebration of indie bookshops across the United States that takes place annually on the last Saturday of April. Seattle is one of the cities that celebrates the day with a particularly bookish adventure: the Seattle Independent Bookstore Day Passport Challenge. The goal? Hit 21 indie bookshops in one day. The prize? Bragging rights, and a 25% discount for an entire year at all participating shops.
Lest you think me hyperbolic for using the word “pilgrimage” to describe this day, I offer the following:
- We woke up at 4am – before Starbucks opened. For Seattleites, this is pretty much the ultimate test of commitment.
- Challengers face 2 ferries, notoriously bad Seattle traffic, and even worse Seattle parking, to reach all 21 locations. If you’ve ever driven in Seattle, you know this is no small feat.
I do realize that a true pilgrimage happens on foot, lasts longer than a single day, and is dedicated to religious purpose. However, standing in a line that spanned the length of a city block at the first shop of the day (the lovely Eagle Harbor Books), there was a palpable sense of excitement and reverence. It’s the closest thing to a pilgrimage I’ve ever experienced. Throughout the day, I saw people doing little happy dances in line, lots of people taking cheerful selfies in front of each store, and the booksellers themselves seemed just as excited as the patrons. Many shops offered free coffee and treats, one shop was giving away free books.
It really felt like a celebration. And as my Dad pointed out, it was the best kind of event – one that was inclusive to anyone interested in celebrating books; nothing political; not even materialistic. You are welcome to run into the story, get your passport stamped, and run back out without buying anything. The booksellers seemed genuinely happy to see everyone, and were understanding that many people were simply running in and out to complete the challenge.
Although I anticipated traffic and parking would be the biggest challenges of the day, in actuality it was leaving each store without soaking in the ambiance and personality each shop has lovingly curated. Dad and I felt terrible about skipping out of the stores without making a purchase. While every shop had its merits, there were a select few we especially loved. We decided to go back to each, and spend time picking out books. What better way to celebrate our win than going back to our favorites with that 25% discount.
In the end, we completed the challenge in 10 hours. Dad meticulously plotted out two routes for the day. Option A allocated 10 minutes per store, and Option B allowed for 20 minutes per store. We worried that Option A was too ambitious, and that traffic and parking would be too much of a hindrance. Yet, we were struck with beginner’s luck. In several cases we found parking directly in front of the bookstores. Not only were we able to stick to Option A, for most of the day we were ahead of schedule.
If you’re planning to give this challenge a try for the first time, here was our recipe for success:
- Be on the first ferry to Bainbridge. Hitting the ferries early is critical.
- Map out your route, paying close attention to which stores open late, and which ones close early. We were fortunate enough to run into an acquaintance of Dad’s on the ferry, who had done all 5 years of this challenge, and he advised us to get to Arundel Books early because it is next to the baseball stadium and a Mariners game was scheduled for later in the day. We quickly reconfigured our route to avoid game traffic. Make sure you’re aware of any major events happening that day.
- Make a schedule and stick to it. Our schedule was 10 minutes per store (with a back-up plan of 20 minutes per store if we encountered unforeseen obstacles). Sticking to this plan ensured that we hit every store on time, and we weren’t completely exhausted by the end of the day.
- Pack a lunch. My mom sent us off with a cooler full of yummy lunch foods, and we ate in the car outside one of the bookstores. This saved us a ton of time.
Seattle is an incredible city for bookworms. No shortage of independent booksellers here, we are a city that supports reading. Not only are there 21 shops that participate in Independent Bookstore Day, some of them have multiple locations, and there are still more indie sellers beyond that list of 21 that don’t participate in the event. Each of these bookstores thrive, or at least survive, because they have managed to cultivate a personality and atmosphere that is inviting and inclusive. These are stores that beckon readers to peruse the stacks, to stay for a while, and go home with an armful of new discoveries. Whether you live in the area, or decide to visit for the day, I highly recommend dropping by some of Seattle’s indie shops. ALL of the 21 stores that participated in the event are worth visiting, but here are four of my favorites:
- Third Place Books (three locations, all of them stellar)
- Eagle Harbor Book Co. (located on Bainbridge Island next to a number of cute shops and great places to eat, this is an excellent place for a day trip)
- Island Books (the bookshelves are topped with old typewriters; this shop exudes bookish charm)
- Phinney Books (the booksellers here were the friendliest we encountered, which is saying something since all the shops were really personable)