Doorways: For the Books

In March of 2020, when COVID-19 disrupted the world, those of us not working in essential roles got pretty intimate with the insides of our homes. We went through the doorways from the bedroom to the bathroom, the living room to the kitchen, and other various combinations. If you lived in a studio, you perhaps got intimate with the lack of doorways. COVID brought about the idea for me of both the importance of physical doorways, but also non-physical doorways. Let’s explore some doorways together, through the lens of one of my favorite types of doorways, books. 

  1. The Closed Door
Home, door closed (shot on color film)

I interviewed Kim Hooyboer*, the general manager of Third Place Books Seward Park, as part of this project. At one point they explained the story behind the name Third Place, “[It is] derived from a sociologist’s work who talked about the fact that you need three places [1]. The first place is your home, the second place is your work or school, and the third place is your community space.” With the arrival of COVID-19, many doors outside the home closed, forcing us to make all of our “places” into the first place, everything happening at home.

Third Place Books, and many, many other businesses closed their doors at the start of the pandemic. Hooyboer explained, to Third Place’s experience of COVID, “The first year or so in particular was a lot different than what bookstores had been used to…We had to very quickly pivot, if you will—I hate that word but here we are—pivot to exclusively online fulfillment and making sure we could be there for our customers in the way we could be at that time. Once we were able to be back in the stores we did open for curbside pickup, for about a month and half I think? So essentially we had to reinvent the entire way we did bookselling.” 

Third Place was not the only one reinventing, in fact, we all were. We’ll explore what came of that soon. I do remember placing an online pick up order in spring of 2020, walking up to a little table set up in front of the closed doors of Third Place, my books waiting in a paper bag with my name on it. When I took the bag home I pulled the books out and then washed my hands and wiped down the volumes lightly with a Clorox wipe. I don’t remember what books I bought, I just remember the fear of other people’s hands. 

2. Paper Doorways Opened

Third Place Books Seward Park, can you spot the author? (shot on film)

When I took those books home, the doors to Third Place were still closed, but another type of doorway had opened, a paper one. 

I interviewed Christine Foye, an independent bookstore sales representative for Simon & Schuster, who emphasized that while bookstores themselves had to close their doors, we weren’t closing the door on reading. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in book sales since March 2020. For the first few months everyone was literally stuck at home, so they read a lot more books and paid more attention to book reviews online and in print publications, and of course on social media (thank you, TikTok!). We saw a lot of people ordering a new book and then returning to a bookstore to order that author’s other, older books. People had time to read, a lot more time than they’d ever had. And when they found an author they liked, they wanted to read everything and they had the time to do it…Essentially, people are reading more books, and often reading in new genres.”

“Essentially, people are reading more books, and often reading in new genres.”

Murals appeared around the city early in the pandemic, like this patterned doorway on Beacon Hill (shot on color film)

3. The Internet Doorways

Beyond even the paper doorway, a doorway opened that transcended physicality—the internet. Now, obviously the internet existed before COVID-19, but I would say—and many would likely agree—that COVID pushed us all into the online world in an intense way. It was pretty much the only option, unless you wanted to be in complete solitude. When I interviewed Bella Ramensky, a 17 year old and word nerd (like myself), she talked about how we all went to the internet for our passions, citing for herself the rise of BookTok, Bookstagram, and BookTube, and the community these platforms provided during an isolating time. These online spaces seem to me like the current version of the third place. When our in-person reality kept us apart, we turned to the internet for our community spaces. Whether or not you may think these online spaces measure up to in-person community spaces or not, they do benefit many. Ramensky said that it felt good to be a part of something, where everyone was appreciating one thing (books). I felt similarly. Laughing at jokes about TBR (to be read) piles and romance tropes felt like taking a deep breath during such a trying moment. There was still joy to be had. 

Hooyboer at Third Place echoed these thoughts on wanting to feel like a part of something, saying, “For the most part we know our communities are here for the physical, analog, so trying to translate that into an online world was…reinventing.” Third Place had quickly transitioned all their events to virtual. Hooyboer led many of their book clubs for a while and said the experience, “…was one of the things that kept me going, and the feedback I’ve gotten from book club members is that this is one of the few ways of having a community in quarantine. I relished those meetings, and still do. It’s just an incredibly important part of bringing the in store experience into people’s homes. In a way that they could trust, and that we could provide.” They also explained how being online has sparked conversation as an industry about accessibility. “When it comes down to it, in person events aren’t always the most accessible. Whether that’s from a physical accessibility standpoint, or from a time standpoint, you know, what people have going on in their lives. For one of our book clubs, one of our members had recently moved out of state, and all of a sudden they were able to come back to book club! It was incredible, they were able to see their community again. So, definitely there are benefits.”

4. The Doorways to Other Worlds

I wasn’t reading much of the dystopian genre this year! When I could, I wanted to take a break from the intensity of the world around me. Ramensky also cited escapism as a big part of her reading during this pandemic, and I’d agree. Books are perfect for this! I can’t even count how many times someone had to raise their voice to get me out of a book void. Open the cover, step in, and forget all about reality for a while. Like the online spaces people have found in the past couple years, books provide a space. When you need to leave your home, there’s a book to go to at any time. At the same time books are also…

5. The Doorways to a Better World

The majority of times I’ve read a book I’ve either sought out one that held a certain topic, or realized as I was reading how it applied to my life and the world around me. Hooyboer shared some data on book buying that definitely backed up that experience, “From a very kind of silly perspective, early in the pandemic we were seeing a lot of self help related relationship books about how not to kill your partner! And then there was this spike of books about better eating habits and sobriety, and stuff like that because people had been stuck inside for so long. Now, everybody’s getting books that are about community based things, and, like, starting to date again, so you can kinda see the way that our community has been impacted.” I personally find it very cool that you can see our desire for community through a solitary action, making me think that maybe reading books isn’t as solitary an activity as one may think.

Hooyboer also spoke about how book sales were impacted by the reckoning with systemic racism that sparked in 2020. “It was widely reported how incredibly so many anti-racism focused books were selling. There’s been a lot of hemming and hawing about “Oh, people read all these books and then they just threw it out the window and nobody cares anymore.” But, just looking at the buying habits of customers, we’ve continued to see a large amount of folks continue to engage in social justice issues.”

Hooyboer also backed up what Ramensky had said about escapism, “It’s also been…a really hard time to be a human! So, we’ve seen a huge spike in kind of cozy books. Romance, kind of cozy sci-fi, if you will. We get a lot of folks coming and just being like ‘I want something that makes me feel happy’.”

“‘I want something that makes me feel happy.’”

In each of my interviews, I asked the person to share one book that represented either their experience of COVID or something they observed around them during COVID. 

Hooyboer mentioned two books. One was A Psalm for the Wild Built, by Becky Chambers. “Becky is a queer sci-fi author…It’s about a futuristic, not quite dystopian world, and follows the main character who is a tea monk. Whose vocation is literally to take their wagon to various villages, set up a little table, where this character will make tea, and the community just comes and talks to the tea monk. The tea monk then, like, meets a robot and goes on an adventure, etc, but it is such an incredible balm of a book. It’s short, it’s delightful, and it really highlights the importance of community and listening to each other, and that connection that we can only get from other people. It’s one of those books I’ve found to be such a salve, and it’s something I think other people have been looking for.” The second book Hooyboer mentioned was by Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Antiracist, tying back to the rise of anti-racism focused book sales.

“It’s one of those books I’ve found to be such a salve, and it’s something I think other people have been looking for.”

Ramensky also mentioned a comforting book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, describing it’s calming effect, but also how it mirrored in some ways her COVID experience, stagnation, floating around but not really heading anywhere. 

Foye mentioned How to do Nothing, by Jenny Odell, which was published at the beginning of quarantine. “I picked it up first because the author is Filipino-American, as am I, and I always pay attention to authors who share my background. But when I started to read it I realized it was exactly the book that I needed in the moment, that also perfectly reflected that moment. It’s a book about resisting the urge to be productive, to work all the time, to go go go. It’s about stepping away from obligations and pressures and quieting your mind and slowing down. So I’m reading this right at the moment when the whole world is being forced—because of a highly contagious virus—to isolate, turn inward, and slow down. Very serendipitous book. And I recommend it for times outside pandemic times, too!”

“But when I started to read it I realized it was exactly the book that I needed in the moment, that also perfectly reflected that moment.”

So we see with the four books mentioned, as well as the data Hooyboer shared, a reflection of the moment and what was needed for the reader in the moment. Books serve where we’re at—a comforting thought. Hooyboer said this about readers, “They are looking for books that will continue to challenge them, but also recognizing that books can bring light.”

“They are looking for books that will continue to challenge them, but also recognizing that books can bring light.”

Seattle Public Library Beacon Hill Branch, use your local library! (shot on color film)

6. Opening the Door

With the pandemic dragging on two years later, it is easy to feel optimism slip. But, Foye and Hooyboer reminded me that there are things to learn from the past couple years, things to remember going forward, and reinforced that bookstores are here to stay. 

Foye reflected on how COVID forced everyone to get creative, “I think that has been a crucial lesson throughout the pandemic—we do what we have to do to keep going. Stores find new ways to sell their wares, families find new ways to be together, governments find new ways to serve. We’re humans, we adapt, and we keep going.”

“We’re humans, we adapt, and we keep going.”

Hooyboer emphasized the importance of community, and of bookstores as a community fixture. “I think one of the things that I’ve felt very strongly about in these past two years is increased understanding in our communities about the importance of bookstores. [Being at home] forced a lot of folks to recognize, in addition to the mass amounts of restaurants that were closing and community spaces that we were losing, it ensured that our communities really took a second look and what they want their neighborhoods to look like, what they want out of this, whatever that might mean. That increased awareness and appreciation for the bookstores as community spaces has been extraordinarily evident in the amount of community support we’ve gotten. And not just us, bookstores around the country. You know, there’s a lot of hemming and hawing and think pieces about bookstores dying. The reality is that our communities want us here. And as hard as the last two years were, bookstores proved that we can pivot and continue to be community spaces regardless of what that looks like on the physical level.”

Through this project, I have realized more than ever the versatility of books, the many hats they wear, doors they open. Books provide spaces for us, book love provides spaces for us, bookstores provide spaces for us, books give us knowlege and perspective. And the best part is that we can take all that we have experienced in these spaces, all that we have learned and realized, and bring it to our lives, go forward with it, walk through our next doorway.

Twice Sold Tales, visited recently now that browsing is open at most stores (shot on color film)

7. Keeping the Doors Open

When I asked what people can do to make sure bookstores can stay in our communities, Hooyboer laughed, “I mean, buy books!” So, take out your TBR list and go fill your shelf! But beyond supporting bookstores financially, there are many ways to connect with them. “All of our event programming is available on our website. We will be starting to bring events back in person here at Seward Park soon, but we are doing that at our other two stores. Join a book club! Come hang out, we’ve got some really fantastic book clubs that can speak to a lot of people’s needs for community. I’m still hosting the Queer Lit Club, and it’s my favorite night of the month…That has been such an incredible opportunity to be around family, if you will. We’ve got a bunch of different clubs that will allow for that sort of family, so join a book club. And if Third Place Books Seward Park isn’t your local store, we do ship! And also I’m sure there’s an independent bookstore in anybody’s neighborhood that would be thrilled to have a new customer.”

8. Your Next Doorway

What will your next doorway be? Will you walk out your front door and head to the bookstore? Will you open the pages of a paper doorway, go into another world for a while? Maybe click through an online doorway, find book love on social media or watch an author event? Take notes from a book experience and apply it to your life? It’s your next step, you get to make the move. Turn your next page. 

Walk through this modern doorway in South Seattle to enter a dystopia (shot on film)
Open these old wood doors in Queen Anne to step into the past (shot on film)

Some Seattle bookstores:

Third Place Books- https://www.thirdplacebooks.com 

Elliott Bay Books- https://www.elliottbaybook.com 

Twice Sold Tales- https://www.twicesoldtales.com 

Arundel Books- http://arundelbooks.com/ 

Fantagraphics- http://www.fantagraphics.com/ 

Left Bank Books- https://www.leftbankbooks.com/ 

Open Books- http://www.openpoetrybooks.com/ 

Local organizations that host authors and writers:

Seattle Arts & Lectures- https://lectures.org 

Hugo House- https://hugohouse.org 

Town Hall Seattle- https://townhallseattle.org 

Some of my favorite online book love spaces:

The StoryGraph: https://www.thestorygraph.com 

Jack Edwards on YouTube and Instagram

Leena Norms on YouTube and Instagram

Find your favorites by exploring BookTube, BookTok, and Bookstagram, simple searches will open the doors!

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Books were purchased from Third Place Books as part of the interview. 

[1] The idea Hooyboer talks about here is credited to the sociologist Ray Oldenburg. 

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