The Greenwood-Phinney neighborhood celebrated this year’s summer solstice with two miracles: the return of sunshine and reopening of the local bookstore. A parade of people—parents pushing strollers, kids enjoying ice cream and even the canine community—streamed toward the red, wooden building on Greenwood Avenue near N 74th St. A new sign hung in the window, "Phinney Books" emblazoned with an orange ferris wheel.
"The books you love say so much about who you are. Our personalities are connected to what we read," says Tom Nissley, who co-owns Phinney Books with his wife Laura Silverstein. "At an independent bookstore, people get to know one another through that experience."
In January Santoro’s Books, longtime occupant of the 1,200 square-foot space, announced it would shutter in May. For Nissley, a 15-year Phinney resident, it felt like a door opening rather than closing. The evening before learning the shop was for sale, he expressed for the first time ever that he would love to own a bookstore.
"I don’t believe in fate, but it kind of felt like the decision was out of my hands given the timing," explains Nissley. "I know it’s not easy to run a bookstore, but I almost felt obligated to pursue the idea."
The new interior feels fresh and vital. "Made-Up" and "True" cleverly mark the fiction and nonfiction sections. Nissley foresees eventually boosting the stock to upward of 5,000 books. Personal touches include canning jars filled with fresh flowers and handwritten notes recommending staff favorites: "If you love books, you simply must read this!"
"I want this to be a small, curated store where people can expect to find something cool they didn’t know about before visiting," says Nissley.
Nissley brings both personal and professional experience to the endeavor. He is a devout bibliophile—his home library numbers 3,500 books and counting. He worked as an Amazon book editor for over a decade, contributing and compiling “Must Read” lists and conducting author interviews with everyone from Philip Roth and Madeleine Albright to Full House munchkins Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen. He was part of Amazon’s early ascension when the company still tapped even office employees to fulfill warehouse orders during the understaffed holiday season.
“It was satisfying because I could help raise awareness for a book. I could get 1,000 customers to buy a great book. At the same time, it just went out into the ether. I never got to meet them or talk about whether they liked the book,” he says.
While working at Amazon’s downtown campus, he regularly visited Elliott Bay Book Company’s previous Pioneer Square location during his lunch hour. "When Elliott Bay moved to Capitol Hill, the first thing I did was figure out the bus route from my office to the new location," he recalls.
Nissley left Amazon after winning $340,000 as an eight-time Jeopardy! winner. Fortuitously, he won nearly $35,000 correctly answering a question about writer W. Somerset Maugham—money that contributed to the bookstore purchase.
Phinney Books is a family affair and customers can count on seeing Nissley almost daily. His wife and two sons, plus grandparents and in-laws, are also likely to become familiar faces. It is these connections that only happen at a brick-and-mortar shop.
"I worked at Amazon and don’t have irrational fears about what it is," says Nissley. "I know what they do well and I’m not going to try to beat them in those areas. We’ll focus on what an indie store does well."
Nissley sees room for the success of both mega-retailers like Amazon and independents. However, he acknowledges the need for a fair balance. Currently, a battle over book access and prices is being waged between publisher Hachette Book Group and Amazon. Writers are caught in the middle. As a negotiation strategy, Amazon has limited access to Hachette books. Nissley intimately understands the catastrophic implications to writers. He published his first book in 2013, A Reader’s Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year.
"I’m glad to see some pushback and that people are stepping up to support Hachette," says Nissley. "Amazon isn’t a bad company, but it becomes an inherent problem when any company gets that big and has such a concentration of power."
For Phinney Books, the bottom line is equal parts commerce and community. A black-and-white photo hangs inside the bookstore depicting the 1920s-era Phinney Ridge ferris wheel. The store’s visual theme speaks to honoring the past with a modern spin.
"Oh my gosh! I saw this book when I was in France! I love this book!!" exclaimed a customer on opening day.
She bustled around the shop with a pop-up book in hand. Forests emerged from the book’s spine to the delight of friends, family and strangers. The children’s area is destined to become a community hub. Plush Huskies and hedgehogs sit atop a custom-made trolley bookshelf modeled after the Interurban streetcar—the one immortalized by the iconic Fremont sculpture.
“Whether or not people buy a book, I want them to come in, see what we’re doing, meet their neighbors and just have fun,” says Nissley.
Top: Jing Kappes reading in front of Phinney Books on its opening day. Center: Henry Silverstein and his father, owner Tom Nissley, help customers on Phinney Books' opening day. Both photos by Curt Gerston.