"Bookstores are my favorite places in the world. When I visit a city I don't read up on restaurants or tourist spots; I want to know where the best bookstores are," said Tom Nissley, an author, former editor for Amazon Books, four-time Jeopardy! champion and now owner of an indie bookstore. Earlier this spring, he purchased Santoro's Books, a 1,200-square-foot indie in the Phinney Ridge/Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle, Wash., from longtime-owner Carol Santoro. (The sale became public last week.) He'll officially take over the store May 5, close it for a month to refresh the space and make some inventory adjustments, then reopen as Phinney Books.
Nissley spent a decade, starting in 2000, working for Amazon, where he founded and edited the site's Omnivoracious books blog, and had more or less the same role during his time there, which was, he said, "finding good books and recommending them." Things changed in 2010 when an eight-game streak won him $235,400 on Jeopardy!
"I had no plans to go from that [working at Amazon] to indie bookselling," explained Nissley. "Writing is what I kind of day-dreamed about and did in my spare time. Winning a lot of money on a game show gave me the chance to have time to write a book."
That book was A Reader's Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year, which came out in November 2013. The impetus to become a bookseller didn't arrive until this winter. Nissley had dinner one night with Cathy Fiebach, the owner of Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr, Pa., while she was in town for Winter Institute 9 (to which Nissley had hoped to go, as an author). They stopped by Elliott Bay Book Company and "talked shop" throughout the evening.
|L.-r.: Jim Santoro and Carol Santoro, Laura Silverstein, Henry Silverstein, Tom Nissley and Peter Silverstein.
"At the end of the night, after dinner and after Cathy left, I told my wife that I really would love to own a bookstore," Nissley recounted. "I didn't think it would happen, but then the very next morning someone forwarded the e-mail that Santoro's Book was up for sale. It felt like the universe was talking to me."
Given that Santoro's Books is only eight blocks from his house, Nissley felt obligated to at least look into it. And the more he investigated buying the store, the more doable, and desirable, it seemed.
"It couldn't be more of a perfect situation," Nissley said. He then reached out to his veteran indie bookseller friends. "I thought they would be the first people to talk me out of it, but they were the first to talk me into it."
Nissley has never worked in retail, let alone in a bookstore. By his estimation, he took the Borders qualifying test some 25 years ago, but probably didn't pass. To get something of a crash course in bookselling, he shadowed booksellers for a day at Elliott Bay and shadowed Carol Santoro many times.
Most of the changes Nissley wants to make in the store will come in the form of additional sidelines; he plans to add custom paper goods and handbags made by Glittersweet, a company owned by wife, Laura Silverstein. And although he plans to leave the store's book selection largely the same, he looks forward to adding some titles close to his heart.
"Keeping up with new books I love, but the things I love the most are forgotten classics, books that have just barely stayed alive for years," said Nissley, who joked that he considered himself the "number one fan" of the New York Review Books Classics reprint series. He intends to carry several such reprint series. "What's a lot of fun for me as a reader and bookseller is letting people know about books that may not be new, but are new to them."
Phinney Books will host authors and events, but given that there is no shortage of either great bookstores or great reading series in Seattle, Nissley imagines that he'll have to be unorthodox to draw in customers. "It's pretty competitive to get people in, and we don't have a huge space," he said. "One advantage of that is we're going to have to be creative with the events we do. I'm pretty well connected among publishers and authors, and I'll try to take advantage of that. Maybe not bring someone in for a standard reading, but try to do something unique and untraditional."
Nissley is open to partnerships with local businesses, but no concrete plans are yet in place. The "really magical partnership," he said, would be with 826 Seattle, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center that is only seven blocks from the store. Nissley was unsure if the store would ever carry e-readers, but he won't have them at launch. "Coming from Amazon, one thing I've learned is that my first job [as an indie] is not trying to do what Amazon does," Nissley said. "They're really good at what they do. What I'm most interested in doing is doing what Amazon can't do--really getting to know my customers, stocking books where people can pore over them. The first thing is to be a physical, independent bookstore. Then we'll see." --Alex Mutter