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Independent Bookstore Series: Ada’s Technical Bookstore

Step into Ada’s Technical Bookstore and you have one foot in the past and one in the future. The recently relocated shop inhabits a 1922 Capitol Hill bungalow with a gabled roof and a venerable tree unfurling over the front yard—an idyllic remnant of days gone by. Inside, the remodeled interior is chic, contemporary and white. Shelves are stocked with books about computer programming and fusion energy—topics that would have sounded like science fiction when the bungalow was built.

“It’s important to us to preserve history as much as possible,” says Danielle Hulton, co-owner with her husband, David, both professional engineers. “I’d rather maintain something if I can rather than tear it down and do something completely brand new.”

Ada’s Technical Bookstore opened in 2010 at its original location, the historic Loveless Building across from the Harvard Exit Theatre, built in the 1930s. The Hultons wanted to expand their beloved but bite-sized bookstore to include a café, bigger inventory and more events. In November, Ada’s reopened in its new spot, where the previous occupant, Horizon Books, had been among Seattle's oldest operating bookstores until its closure in 2009.

“We’ve lived in Capitol Hill for about last eight years and are comfortable here because we’re a part of the neighborhood,” says 28-year-old Hulton. “I’ve had people tell me there is no such thing as a modern bookstore, that it’s an oxymoron, but I think the modern bookstore caters to the needs of the culture and community it lives in.” 

The shop is named for Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron and an early 1800s mathematician and forerunner of computer programming. In that vein, the store stocks titles on math, science, computers, engineering and more. There are more than 6,000 titles with plans to boast inventory to 8,000 by the end of 2014.

“About half our inventory are books that are for people curious about a subject who know nothing about it, but want to learn more,” says Hulton. “The other half is teaching yourself, as an adult, how to learn to do something new.”

Hulton practices what she preaches. In order to create the store’s first website, she learned computer programming from a book plucked off the shelves. The “technical” focus is far from exclusive. There are cookbooks, a children’s section and entertaining titles such as Women Scientists in Fifties Science Fiction Films.

“Science can be in any sense,” says Hulton. “To me, mushroom foraging is technical since you need to know what you’re looking for.”

Hulton worked four years as an electrical engineer before she and David decided to open the bookstore. Part of the inspiration was not readily finding books that spoke to their personal interests. They traveled almost monthly to Powell’s Technical Books in Portland before deciding that Seattle needed its own independent, niche store.

“There were definitely naysayers who told us not to start a business, especially in 2010 when the economy was going down the tubes—let alone a bookstore! Maybe we’re just young enough, and maybe stupid enough, but we decided to do it anyway!” laughs Hulton.

The neighborhood has enthusiastically embraced Ada’s. The full-service café and meeting space hum with activity. The store only moved seven blocks, but the new space is attracting a broader clientele. Former regulars were primarily between 18 and 39 years old. Now there are also kids, families and retired people visiting daily. A significant draw is the engaging architecture and interior design. Many of the concepts came from Hulton’s Pinterest page.

The inside is awash in white and a silhouette of the store’s namesake overlooks the store from the back wall. The extensive use of wood adds a homey feeling and 90% was reclaimed from the building itself. An art piece depicting the Space Needle hangs in the outside courtyard and was constructed from the floorboards. The “door wall” installation hangs from the ceiling and is a patchwork that includes the home’s original, front door. Everything is aesthetically organized to complement the books rather than distract.

“I’m not the type of bookstore person who wants to walk in and get lost. I like getting lost in ideas more than the actual space,” she says.

In the back meeting room, an ingeniously constructed table was personally constructed by husband David, the son of a woodworker. The wooden box is covered with glass and  displays electrical engineering documents. The café shadow-box tables are similar and filled with mementos representing astronomy, aviation, computer hacking, lock picking and more.

Only a month after the grand reopening, every table is packed with customers. They are welcomed by a “Happy Birthday” sign strung across the counter and a three-tier apple cake decorated with candles. It to celebrates Ada Lovelace’s 198th birthday, but could as easily celebrate the store’s rebirth. It is perhaps one in the same, a celebration of the past and present coming together.

“We want to provide a space where people have access to ideas,” says Hulton. “It’s comfy and cozy and kind of feels like home, but different in its own, great way. Hopefully Ada’s feeds those feelings.”

Photos by Cindy Apple

For more in this series: Wessel & Lieberman, Left Bank Books, Peter Miller Books, Cinema Books and Open Books