Bookshop Superheroes: Phinney Books
February 22, 2021
As we approach the anniversary of the start of the pandemic in our region, we are reflecting back on the year that has passed. And we know this for sure: bookstore workers and owners have been absolute essential workers—heroes on the frontlines of our mental health. After those first months when reading felt really hard, when the doom-scrolling kept us in our lizard brains, books were there waiting for us in all their analog selves. Books, as one 2020 Summer Book Bingo player said, are the only safe way to travel right now.
In appreciation of our local indies who have reinvented their processes and protocols over and over again in the service of getting the just-right book to the just-right hands, we are launching Bookshop Superheroes, a new blog series on our bookstore partners. Over the course of the winter and spring, we will feature a bookstore, and they will take over our Instagram for a day to give you the inside glimpse into a day in their store. (Not following us yet on Instagram? Check us out!)
First up is Phinney Books, who will take over our Instagram on February 23! Tom Nissley, who is the owner of Phinney books, and also a bibliophile, a Jeopardy! champion, an author (A Readers Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year), and an editor, reveals the books he’s most excited about coming out soon, along with the bestsellers at Phinney Books—read on for some great reading options!
How has the pandemic affected your business?
We have been very fortunate. Like everyone else in our business (and everyone else in general), we spent a few months last spring adjusting seemingly every week to new ways of doing business: being closed entirely, directing orders to our online partners, doing neighborhood deliveries and then doorway pickup, and finally opening back up in June for limited in-store browsing. And that’s where we have been ever since, to the point that, masks and limited capacity aside, it almost feels normal here. And I think it’s made us a place where people can come in and also feel almost normal. Even now, we have customers come in and say, “I haven’t been in a store since last February!” and it’s a reminder of how rare that feeling can be.
And we’ve been fortunate that business has been good—even better than usual, if I can admit that, since we’re well aware that so many of our neighboring businesses and our fellow arts organizations can’t do business as usual. There are a variety of reasons we’ve been able to survive and even thrive: we’re a small store (but not too small!), which made it easier to adjust to the new conditions, we’re in a mostly residential neighborhood (where most of our neighbors are working from home all day), libraries have been closed, and some people have had more time to read (and do puzzles!). And I think many people have made a conscious decision to shop locally, both our regular customers and many new ones. We’ve gained a lot of new customers who come in and tell us, “I decided I’m not shopping on Amazon anymore!” And we can see the effect of people making those decisions on our bottom line. Thank you!
What have been some of your top sellers this year?
Our top sellers over the past year tell a pretty good story about what our customers have been interested in reading. Our top five books are all by African American authors, with Barack Obama’s A Promised Land at the top, followed closely by Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, and Seattle’s own Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race.
And as someone who loves older books and thinks it’s one of the best parts of our job to keep them alive, I also want to highlight four books, all over ten years old, that have also been bestsellers for us this year: Braiding Sweetgrass, by upcoming SAL speaker Robin Wall Kimmerer, which has become a phenomenon over the past year, and three by writers no longer with us, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, The Women in Black by Madeleine St. John (a delightful Australian novel that is our favorite recommendation), and The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis, which of course was spurred by the Netflix series—although I can say, with bookseller’s arrogance, that we have been recommending it for years!
What books are you excited for in the coming year?
I’ve just finished putting together our Spring Preview issue of our store email newsletter, so this is an easy question to answer (although a hard one too, because, as always, there are too many good books to fit in). This spring we’re excited about some of the big names with new books: new novels by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Rachel Cusk, and new nonfiction accounts of the pandemic that have just been announced by Michael Lewis and recent SAL speaker Lawrence Wright.
We’ve been looking forward to Blake Bailey’s big new biography of Philip Roth for a long time, and it’s very exciting to know that Daniel James Brown, whose last book, The Boys in the Boat, is still our all-time bestseller, finally has a new one: Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II.
And a few more local authors to highlight: Homewaters, about the human and natural history of the Puget Sound, by our best local historian, David B. Williams, as well as Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Rooted, chef Renee Erickson’s Getaway, and Jonathan Evison’s Legends of the North Cascades, as well as former Seattle resident Elissa Washutta’s essay collection White Magic. And lastly, since I do love bringing old books back to life, I’ll mention one more: Waterlog by Roger Deakin, a modern British classic, which kicked off the “wild swimming” movement there but has never been published here. Thanks to our Portland friends at Tin House for that one.