Bookshopping: Magus Books, Seattle

The other bookstore I visited in Seattle is Magus Books.  Just steps from the University of Washington campus, Magus Books has an extensive collection of used books in this old, vine-laced bookshop.

The shop is especially strong in its older hardcovers.  There are bookshelves full of well-cared for gilded spine collectibles and classic hardcovers complete with box sleeves.

They also carry a great collection of children’s novels from the early and mid-twentieth century.  (I bought one of the ones on this shelf!)*

I really like how they mark the beginning of each section with related prints and images.

The day I was there I was especially drawn to their botany and birding and antique book collections, along with their impressive art books.  I found one on Stuart Davis and another great one on Henry Moore that I wished I could fit in my luggage.  Not to mention a couple more children’s novels and pocket books I really wanted.

One of the aspects I liked best about this bookstore is its knowledgeable and thoughtful staff.  I had a great conversation with the man working there that day about various older book series they had on display, and really admired his expertise and low-key generosity.

I liked this bookstore and Elliott Bay Books for different reasons.  The two are a terrific balance.  Magus is another one of those bookstores I wish I lived close to.  It’s the kind of place where I think if I dropped by every so often, I’d light on something different each time.  And I have so much more I want to talk over with these booksellers about early 20th-century book publications.

*Yes, I did already violate my prohibition on buying books on this research trip.  I really don’t have any spare room or weight in my backpack during these nomadic next few weeks, so I’ll have to ship this one home to myself before I leave Seattle….  Not buying books (or supporting these independent bookstores) is lousy!

Fang Lijun Woodblock, Seattle

One of my research stops in Seattle was the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park.  I was primarily there to visit some of the older pieces in the collection, but I stopped into the contemporary galleries, too, and was completely captivated by this large-scale woodblock print No. 19 by Chinese artist Fang Lijun.  I really like the linear textiles contrasted against the soft sinuous shadows.  The piece renders its figures with such sensitivity — and on a monumental scale.

Bookshopping: Elliott Bay Books, Seattle

After some research meetings the other day, I stopped at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.  Their New Fiction table and staff recommendation shelves reflect an unusually broad and sensitive reading of new book releases.

Their staff has pulled together recommendations that not only include the books that are currently getting a lot of attention, but also a rich collection of new books that I hadn’t yet heard about.   I felt like the two hours I spent there were completely absorbed in taking in these tables of new titles.  Being there felt like an important part of my work as a fiction writer.

They have extensive staff recommendation shelves — the largest staff recommendation section I’ve ever seen, peppered with some especially lovely and evocative description cards.  And even beyond the usual sections of staff recommendations and new releases and bookclub suggestions, there are themed tables and endcaps upon endcaps of interesting selections.  Elliott Bay Books’ tables and shelves feel like a cross between a great reading list and a Maureen Corrigan book review.

I was particularly taken with their Resolution Reads shelf — always an interesting concept in books.  Theirs feels playful: it includes classics like Ulysses, contemporary giants such as Murakami and Tartt’s Goldfinch, mixed in with a book on personal finance, The Art of Urban Sketching and Mindy Kaling’s essay collection.  Elliott Bay’s staff seems to embrace a wide picture of what, exactly, our resolutions may include (laughter, possibly?)

The bookstore is also active in supporting local and contemporary writers: Elliott Bay hosts an extensive reading series.  (Even while I was there, a staff member was updating their chalkboard with details on the next night’s reading.)  And augmenting this effort to promote contemporary writers, they publish two newsletters — a monthly event guide to upcoming readings and a seasonal gazette full of book recommendations.

In addition to all that, Elliott Bay has impressive selections of art magazines and literary journals, and a whole table devoted to poetry collection highlights (which I’ve found is always a hallmark of a good bookstore).

The store itself is beautiful — huge and full of rich, warm wood floors and wooden beams.  There are two floors of books and a lower level just for their readings.

I wish I lived closer to this bookstore so that I could stop here more often to replenish my reading list from their selections.

And I really wish I could have picked up a handful of books here during my visit.  On this research trip, I have to keep my pack light, so I really can’t carry books.  It killed me though.  There are at least half a dozen books from Elliott Bay I’m eager to read — and it’s so important to support independent bookstores.  Fortunately, they do sell online, so an order is certainly in my future when I get back.

the common S E N S E, Seattle

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During my research visits to the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, I swung into the galleries to see the current  museum-wide installation by Ann Hamilton.  This new work pulls together a number of threads.  Among them, Hamilton explores how the sensation of touch plays out across a range of ideas and experiences.  Influenced by the University (where’s she’s currently artist-in-residence) and its natural history collections, Hamilton pays close attention to animals and their furs.

In several galleries, she hung reams of newsprintted animal images, which exhibit viewers are invited to peel down as keepsakes.  The display calls to mind the older chambers of wonders model, where art and natural collections co-existed.

In the museum’s basement, Hamilton approached this same theme from a different lens, creating linen-walled cubes, each containing furs in glass cases.  Handwritten manila cards tied to each cube echo specimen cards, and more potently, morgues.

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A second major thread Hamilton explores here is the longtime tradition of the common book.  Aware of the way this exhibit draws together and links ideas, Hamilton creates a meta experience of idea collecting within her installation.  Exhibit visitors collect not only collect the newsprint animals from the gallery walls, but also quotes on touch that are placed throughout the exhibit.

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Amid all that collecting, Hamilton asks her viewers to contribute to the exhibit as well by leaving an ethereal photograph of themselves to be added to the installation.  “An exhibition is a form of exchange, and like a conversation it is organic,” Hamilton writes.  “It is changed by each person who enters and whose acts of taking and giving become the life of the project.”

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Hamilton is lyrical and astute in her written descriptions of this project.  And there’s a lot of interpretive text in this exhibit, a lot of conceptual frameworks to work though.  The choice to include extensive signage may have to do with the exhibit’s home at a university art museum where the work is meant to be engaged with repeatedly over a longer timeframe — and to become a part of a larger pedagogical discourse.

At times, though, I wish she had offered less explanation of the rich concepts she’s explored.  I would have liked to let these disparate threads coallese more organically, to allow the exhibit to work through inference more.  The work is strong enough for Hamilton to trust in its experiential rhythm.

You also get the sense, though, of an artist exploring an assortment of new elements in her work and inviting us into the recesses of creative process.  The sense that she’s gathering together ideas that are still more divergent than synthesized — and that this experimentation ought not cohere too soon.

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Henry Art Gallery, Seattle

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One of the first stops on my research trip this weekend was the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington in Seattle.  The gallery is home to a handful of resources I’ve wanted to access as I write my story collection.

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It also turns out to be a pretty dynamic structure.  I like the way the domes and arches of the older building juxtapose against its modern glass cylinder and trail of pyramids.

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Reflection

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Every day I walk by the Persian carpet store down the street from my apartment.  A few months ago, I caught the reflection of the buildings in the rug store window.  It looks almost as though the Mt. Vernon row houses are a design emerging from the pattern in the carpet.

Of course, as a textile enthusiast, I am always going to be attracted to to the designs and textures of carpets — and I particularly like this one.  I also love to the architecture of these old, nineteenth century Mt. Vernon row houses, with their brickwork and arcs and ornate entrances.

So I am drawn this layering of pattern and texture.  The resonance of organic and geometric shapes and warm color in both the cityscape and the Persian carpet, the way they interplay.

The image feels right just now: this resonance, this layering of place.  Back in the fall I mentioned that I received the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance’s Ruby Grant.  This winter I’ll use part of that grant to take a research trip for the last two stories in my collection.

That means that I’ll be away from my much-loved neighborhood for a little while, as I complete this book which spans from Baltimore to Japan to Hawaii to Seattle.  This story collection that layers refractions of place as its characters move across a shifting globe in the wake of war, and transport their complex webs of belonging.

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These photographs of Dulkarian’s Persian Rug Co. are part of an interest in Baltimore windows that seems to have taken hold this past year in my photography (see here).  In the coming weeks, I’ll write about my research travel, but I’ll also continue to post a series of these Baltimore windows.

In that way, I can layer place here in my studio space just as in my story collection.  I look forward to taking you all along on the journey!

Poconos

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After returning to Stroudsburg’s record store to pick up a few more albums, I headed out to Bushkill Falls for a short, easy afternoon hike.  I couldn’t have asked for a nicer weekend in the Poconos: the leaves were lime and just-now amber and golden, the light filtered and luminous in that distinct October way.  The wooden walkways that criss-cross the falls and hillsides made me feel like I was in a northeastern Swiss Family Robinson (which was my brother’s and my favorite film as kids).

This was a walk of talking and taking stock of next steps and future adventures, and then stopping and standing stock-still because — how beautiful.

Street Art in Progress: Stroudsburg

Around sunset on my recent trip to the Poconos, I spotted these paint buckets in an alley off the main street in Stroudsburg.  The artists were partway through an outlined mural and, apparently, taking a break.  A few hours later, well after dark, I walked back by and spotted them on the scaffolding painting by headlamp.

Two fun glimpses into this artistic progress.

Bookshopping: Carroll & Carroll

On my weekend trip to the Poconos, I stopped at Carroll & Carroll Booksellers in Stroudsburg.  Walking down the main drag in Stroudsburg feels like going back in time a few decades: they have a bookshop, a music store, a camera shop, and just for good measure a homemade ice cream shop (called, delightfully, Sweet Creams.  Get the cinnamon.  It’s delicious.)

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Carroll & Carroll has a terrific collection that encompasses everything from brand-new novels and hardcovers to standard-issue used books, to some pretty gorgeous antique editions.  And they’re all jumbled together in great, inviting piles.  Usually when I see bookstores mix new and used books together like this — at favorite bookstores like Boulder Books and Powells — the used books are incorporated into the new book shelves.  But Carroll & Carroll organizes the whole bookstore like a used bookstore, with bookshelves stocked two-rows deep and piles stacked on floors and in corners.  There will be two new copies of Rebecca Makkai with a tattered Malamud sandwiched between.  And in this bookstore, that absolutely works.

Perhaps because of the nearby college, or more likely because of the fabulous, sharp, witty couple that owns this shop, there’s a pretty impressive selection of whip-smart literature.  A whole row of Doris Lessing, a shelf of Proust.

And then completely random and unexpected extras.  I wound up in a great conversation with the bookstore owner about a book on pencil sharpening that turns out to be as fascinating as it is unironic.  (So many significant daily inventions are perfectly designed for the jobs they do, but are not quite world-changing, we marveled.)

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The owners keep a wall of newsclippings about writers and books, mostly obituaries of great modern writers.  And it feels like a nice reminder of our shared enterprise, our community of writers and readers and booksellers.  A point of human connection with all the people who wrote the books we’re browsing.

Plus, for balance, some comics.

That’s what it feels like in this bookstore: that you’re discovering things every time you bend down over a bookpile or move the front row from a shelf.  Each time there’s something unexpected and delightful, engaging and challenging.

I really did have such a nice afternoon in Stroudsburg.  And just when I’d finished book browsing, I walked one block away and found this:

My week has been happily stocked with books and records ever since this trip.