Seattle refuses to be pigeonholed. It’s a city surrounded by shimmering water and snow-capped mountain ranges; it’s also home to smoke-belching container ships and stinky fishmongers. It hosts sparkling, squint-at-the-perfect-sky summers and winters shrouded in fog, mist and melancholy. Beauty and sadness; wealth and obscurity; competing symbols of hope and doom—it’s hard to imagine a better city for writers to live. Plenty of them do, naturally, and following are the places they go for inspiration.
Like most writers do, we’ll start at a bookstore. THE ELLIOTT BAY BOOK COMPANY (101 South Main St.) isn’t the only great bookstore in Seattle, but it’s the greatest. Located a few blocks from the bay itself, next to a ramshackle shop of nautical curios, the bookstore’s creaking wood floors and multiple levels of new and used titles beckon customers from the briny sidewalks of historic Pioneer Square.
A force in the independent bookselling world for 35 years, The Elliott Bay Book Company is community-minded, esoteric and proud of its legacy as an architect of the modern-day author tour. More than 3,000 writers have spoken to crowds large and small here—and they’ve all received an unheard-of level of respect and professionalism. These booksellers know books, and they aren’t shy about sharing their opinions. Same goes for the customers, for that matter.
Down a spiral staircase is the Elliott Bay Café, a brick-walled coffee shop that was the inspiration for the café in the TV sitcom “Frasier.” Who knows if Kelsey Grammer ever set foot inside, but Norman Mailer, Barbara Kingsolver and George Saunders have.
If hardcore readers make a beeline for Elliott Bay, working writers go to RICHARD HUGO HOUSE (1634 11th Ave.). For more than a decade, Hugo House has served as the epicenter for Seattle writers at work. Described by its founders as “an urban writer’s retreat,” Hugo House plays an indispensable role in the Seattle literary scene, offering a variety of programs for writers to hone their art. It’s also a great place for experienced writers to volunteer their hard-won wisdom by mentoring up-and-comers.
If you’re looking to volunteer, 826 SEATTLE (8414 Greenwood Ave.) is another great spot. The brainchild of author Dave Eggers, 826 Seattle is a nonprofit drop-in tutoring center for young writers. Students receive help with their school writing assignments, work on wildly creative projects of their own and publish collections of their work. It’s an inspiring place to be, for kids and the adult writers helping them.
Any overview of Seattle literary hangouts would be incomplete without a mention of the city’s independent coffee shops. Coffee is more than a casual diversion here—people live it and love it, and their loyalties run deep. Ask 10 writers what the best coffee shop is and you’ll get 10 different answers, all depending on the neighborhood, the atmosphere and the particular way one’s favorite barista adds a skosh of vanilla to a double-shot latté.
But it’s hard to find better coffee shops than in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. BAUHAUS BOOKS & COFFEE (301 E. Pine Ave.) is a perennial favorite, and it caters to the young and hip. Complete with a framed photograph of Walter Adolph Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus art movement, and a 20-foot-high wall of books, this is one of the best places in the city to sit with a laptop, sip a drink and stare out the window at the Seattle skyline. Oh, and write, of course.
The downside to Bauhaus is the loud music. VICTROLA COFFEE & ART (411 15th Ave. E), another Capitol Hill establishment, offers a slightly chiller vibe, as well as friendly staffers who’ll happily discuss their favorite novel—or let you work undisturbed. Five minutes away is ESPRESSO VIVACE ROASTERIA (901 E. Denny Way). In addition to their sunny and welcoming shop, the owners have published a book and instructional videos to help others create quality drinks. When you taste their White Velvet Americano, you’ll be convinced they know their stuff.
The call of caffeine notwithstanding, writers will always gravitate toward libraries. And the Seattle library system is great. But its crown jewel is the SEATTLE CENTRAL LIBRARY (1000 4th Ave.), downtown. It has all the things a good library should have—books, tables, chairs, computers, brilliant librarians—but it’s the building itself that makes the difference. Designed by renowned architect Rem Koolhaas, the structure is a crystalline, obtuse-angled wonder on the outside, and an organic, mind-bendingly modern facility on the inside. Wander the sloped hallways; ride the bright yellow escalators to the top and stare at the city through cross-hatchings of steel and glass; gape at the “red room”—a corridor covered from floor to ceiling with glossy red. It’s like walking through a giant blood vessel.
There’s much more to Seattle than these few examples, of course. For a true Seattle literary experience, take a bus into the city. Board a ferry and stand on the deck and cross Puget Sound at sunset. Consider the smell of the salt water and the stiff sea breeze. Consider the sky as it shifts from pink to purple to deep blue-black. Consider the glowing peaks of the Olympic Mountains as they fade into the Northwest night.
And then write about it, like everyone else on the boat wants to.
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