Truth be told, I was never much of a reader when I was a kid. I never had the patience for the stuff. My poor parents tried time and time again to cram my head into a book as a desperate plea to pull my attention from whatever video game I was involved in at the time, and of course, these attempts of my parents always went unrewarded. Perhaps it was that nothing had caught my eye. I spent whatever amount of time I had with a book focusing on fantasy novels after discovering an early love for Harry Potter and Walter Moore’s “The 13 and a Half Lives of Captain Bluebear.” But with age comes wisdom and eventually, thanks to a lovely freshmen English teacher, my love of literature was awakened with a single reading of “The Catcher in The Rye.”
With a sudden interest in reading came an odd obsession for collection. I simply needed books, the more the merrier. Even if my room became a massive overflowing library that could hardly be considered habitable, I didn't care. I had a desire to collect and read as much as I could. I took a strong interest in classics, and with several lists in my hand, and several recommendations in mind, I took a flying leap into book shopping and began to traverse the rocky terrain of bookstores around the area. I never enjoyed Kindles too much, and reading anything on a screen seems unusual to me. The large chain bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and the now deceased Borders were too expensive for my paycheck of zero dollars and zero cents from my non-existent jobs. So what does that leave for a cheap, jobless, high school student such as me to do? As it turns out, the answer led me to some of the most interesting places around: the local bookstores of Tacoma.
With summer comes a desire to read, and with a sense of lovely relaxation comes a desire for knowledge and adventure. The perfect time for a good book, I think, is in the dead of winter or the heat of the summer, preferably sitting on a beach or surrounded by trees. Therefore, without further ado, here are my favorite bookstores of Tacoma, and some titles that the owners of each would recommend to the typical summer reader.
Located on Proctor not far from Mason Middle School and hidden between Umpqua bank and the Italian restaurant Europa Bistro sits Culpepper's books, a small but brilliant monument to the love of the printed word. Now, I love Culpepper's. In fact, it may seem biased to even write about it, as it has become such a beloved location for me. The atmosphere in the store is remarkably homey, and is perhaps one of the most well organized bookstores in the area. Culpepper's specializes in rare, used, and out of print books and has a healthy selection and styles of literature ranging from contemporary fiction, classics, tomes of historical accounts, books on chess, fishing and painting. Yet the draw of Culpepper's Books is its owner, veteran book dealer Jerry Culpepper.
Culpepper is the kind of guy that, even if you were to try, you could never forget that he bears a stronger resemblance to a character straight out of a novel rather than a person sitting in front of you yakking your ear off. Passionate and impossibly funny, Culpepper gives the store its life and ability to charm, and for the most part I simply enjoy going into the store for his company and the company of his friends, a cast of characters so fascinating and interesting that to describe them would take several articles in and of themselves (here’s to you, Richard Baker).
Culpepper has worked as a book vendor for much of his life, starting at the age of 19 under the wing of Mrs. Fox at Foxes Books. Though he moved around and worked other jobs, he continued to have a passion for selling books and would return to Mrs. Fox for work from time to time. It was in 2001 that Culpepper decided to settle down and open his own bookstore with wife and co-owner Michelle. With an eccentric personality, Culpepper has taken a cue from the books he sells and has developed an uncanny ability to tell a brilliant story, and for the most part has a gift for gab. Yet these stories are extraordinary to hear, be it stories from his life or of his times and adventures as a bookseller. These are tales that will eat up hours of your time and will leave a vivid image permanently imprinted on your mind. Perhaps dodging any bullets or anger from other book dealers in the area, I feel that saying Culpepper is the most educated and opinionated book salesman in the area isn’t much of a stretch. Simply put, if you ever want to discuss a novel, an author, or a piece of history, none are more fantastic to speak to than Jerry Culpepper.
He has a set of novels that his customers have dubbed “Culpepper Classics” that he considers his favorites; and ones that he thinks everyone and their mother should read. Included are:
“How Green Was My Valley” by Richard Llelwyn
“She” by H. Rider Hagard
“Blue Nile/White Nile” by Ellen Morehoud
“Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry
“Sailing Alone Around The World” by Joshua Slocum
TACOMA BOOK CENTER
Perhaps the biggest of the bookstores around Tacoma is deservingly entitled Tacoma Book Center, and it exists in an interesting part of town just within walking distance of both Tacoma Dome and Freighthouse Square.
The majority of my books are purchased there, and the stock of literature, both fiction and nonfiction, on display is staggering. On some days, a sign that advertises the store boasts that there are over half a million books in the store, but this seems like a drastic understatement, as the store seems to go on for miles with every inch covered in books. Although the books are less valuable than those on display at Culpepper's, the size and scale of Tacoma Book Center is immense. Through frequent visitations to the store, friends and I have nicknamed the store “Bunker Books” as it seems to resemble a bunker that could be utilized in the event of a world war. Nearly every genre of book sits calmly waiting in this store's many rooms and hallways. Books range from fiction to nonfiction, to philosophy, to manga, to the classics, to the arts and, interestingly, even a collection of highly coveted and frequently stolen books that sit just behind the counter.
Tacoma Book Center is run by a collection of people who seem to be at their friendliest at all times. Each is willing and able to give his/her opinions and in the friendliest manner possible. Like other stores, the prices that Tacoma Book Center offers are fair and reasonable. On top of this, the store gives a wonderfully fair deal on trades and great cash for book exchange.
Tacoma Book Center opened in 1984 near the Frank Russell Building. The store experienced a consistent level of growth and relocated in 1989 to where it sits now. Owned by Larry Jezek and David Killian, Tacoma Book Center has seen nothing but growth since it opened, and even needed an expansion and got one with the purchase of a building they now use as warehouse space to hold its massive amount of books. Tacoma Book Center is also one of Tacoma’s oldest bookstores, giving it a sort of vintage feeling that creates a fantastic atmosphere to wander in for hours.
Books recommended for the summer:
Larry Jezek (owner):
“The Passage” by Justin Cronin
“Night Dogs” by Kent Anderson
“11/22/63” by Stephen King
Marie Paxton (employee):
“Life of Pi” by Yann Martel
“Half Broke Horses” by Jeannette Walls
“Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris
PARK AVENUE BOOKS
Of all the bookstores highlighted in this article, Park Avenue Books is likely the one you have heard the least about. Clear across town, Park Avenue Books sits in the Fern Hill district in South Tacoma. Quiet and unassuming longtime book dealer and former owner of Linda’s Books, Linda Howell, runs it. She refers to herself as a book lady and claims that the bookstore is an accomplishment of a childhood dream of owning a massive library.
“I used to go to this great library when I was a girl and I just used to think, you know I would like to own one of these great big libraries someday,” She said, before adding with a smile, “of course I can’t do that really so I think this is the next best thing for me.”
Park Avenue is overwhelmingly crowded with books, and to many this may prove difficult to navigate, but this place is a sanctuary for people who simply love books at an extraordinarily reasonable price. Park Avenue specializes in trade paperbacks, with a good chunk of the store's stock being made up of romance novels, mysteries, self-help books and Christian fiction novels.
Howell’s statement about the business is simply: “Put books in the hands of people who want to read them for a reasonable price” and she has been doing so for a number of years.
Starting as a book dealer with her first store aptly titled Linda’s Books, she met Diana Brown, owner of Boomerang Books, and the two decided to go into business together after creating a foundation of friendship. Howell and Brown founded Park Avenue Books after agreeing that they both needed bigger stores. After Brown passed away in 2011, Howell became the sole owner of the store and is assisted in running it by a number of close friends. Howell is characterized by an incredibly sweet and kind disposition, greeting each customer with a warm smile and an almost nostalgic tone of voice that brings to mind the warmth of a motherly figure.
Though Howell was hesitant to give any personal favorites as recommendations, she was more than willing to suggest a few for the summer reader including classics such as:
“Moby-Dick” by Herman Melville
“The Scarlett Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
“The Pearl” by John Steinbeck
Linda strongly recommends the author Jillian Hart.
King's Books is perhaps Tacoma's most well-known local bookstore. King's is the one you hear about all the time, the place that cool girl who drinks too much coffee and reads feminist novels says she is going when she heads off to her book club. King's Books is currently in the midst of its 13th year of business, and though it doesn't look strikingly different from an average bookstore, it is held afloat by its numerous community nights, events and book clubs. King's can largely be described as a meeting place for the book loving population of Tacoma. Its large, airy, and at times silent atmosphere leads to a sense of ease in the bookstore, with its long bare hallways that lead into a massive meeting spot in the back of the store. It might feel overwhelming at first sight, but one quickly realizes this space gives access to large community events.
King's, like the other local bookstores, specializes in a large selection of used and traded in books that can be sold at a cheaper and affordable price. However, King's is also an advocate for bringing in newly published books and selling them for a cheaper price as well. As stated above, King's is primarily a community run bookstore. Though King's is under the ownership of a single owner by the name of Sweet Pea Flaherty, it’s the local community that pulls together the events that mark King's Books as a landmark of the city. Though any sort of large-scale events or happenings have died down for the summer, the bookstore always makes time for its numerous book clubs. King's book clubs are typically centered on a key theme or idea that every member either is a part of, or believes strongly in; included are a book club around food and veganism, the LGBT community, feminism and others.
Books recommended by owner Sweet Pea Flaherty:
“Where'd You Go” by Bernadette-Maria Semple
“5th Wave” by Rick Yancey
“Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter
Sean Contris is a student at Wilson High School. Oftentimes he comes too close to embodying the classical, and often times stereotypical, persona of a young male writer. Sean enjoys listening to a wide range of music and locking himself in his room to read sad Russian novels.
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