On this final day of University Press Week, we are delighted to showcase Phinney Books, a Seattle neighborhood bookstore known for its careful selection of titles and expertly curated subscription program. Phinney Books serves a community of wide-ranging readers and is a valued promoter of UW Press books and university presses in general. Read our Q&A with owner Tom Nissley to learn more about Phinney Books and its customers and what’s next up for the bookstore.
How do you see university presses fit into the larger publishing world?
Through the bookstore, I see the trade side of university publishing, and I love to see their qualities of authority and care for scholarship and (relative) indifference to the market turned toward publishing for general readers. In the case of UW Press (and Washington State and Oregon State), that’s often done through publishing about the Northwest, a subject of great appeal to our customers. I’m always delighted to see the new catalogs from the “national” university presses as well (and to talk about them with our wonderful sales reps) and to find out what they are publishing next with their usual rigor and imagination. Every season there are books that we know will have a significant audience but that would not otherwise find a publishing home outside a university press.
What are Phinney Books customers reading these days?
Our customers always impress me with their appetite for translated literature and meaty books on history, politics, and nature. They are trying all the books by new Nobel laureate (and store favorite) Annie Ernaux, and reading about mushrooms and Greek myths and Vikings. From UW Press, our perennial favorite is David B. Williams, our best Northwest historian, whose last three books, Too High and Too Steep, Seattle Walks, and Homewaters, have each been bestsellers for us. This season we’ve had many readers coming in asking for Megan Asaka’s new history of migrant workers in our city’s early years, Seattle from the Margins. And every once in a while, a happy customer walks out the door with one of the most beautiful books in the store, the exquisite three-volume Fishes of the Salish Sea set.
Can you recall a memorable event with a university press author?
We do very few events, almost always for neighborhood authors—many of whom are customers as well—but one of my favorites was when a sister and brother, food writer and memoirist Jess Thomson and Reed professor of history and environmental studies Joshua Howe, both had new books out from UW Press: Jess’s memoir A Year Right Here and Joshua’s documentary collection, Making Climate Change History. I loved their mutual respect for each other’s very different work, and the affection and intuitive, slightly rivalrous connection that only siblings could share. It was a special night.
Beyond events, are there other ways that you have found success when collaborating with publishers?
One of my favorite collaborations with a publisher took place behind the scenes: over the years, I got to know—almost entirely through his outreach—Andrew Berzanskis [former senior acquisitions editor at UW Press], who just moved on to become the editorial director at the University of Oklahoma Press. He was always curious to hear our frontline perspective on readers and bookselling, and I got to get a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse of the long-term process by which books are made.
When it comes to reaching readers, Phinney Books has been particularly forward thinking—from one of the best bookstore newsletters around to your subscription program, Phinney by Post. What’s on the horizon? Any new or upcoming programs you are particularly excited about?
Thanks for the kind words! For the most part we are busy enough with what we have going on already that we don’t have much chance to look beyond it, but we are delighted that this month we’re bringing back one of our favorite traditions, the Holiday Bookfest at the nearby Phinney Neighborhood Association, with two dozen authors (including David B. Williams and Oregon State University Press author Jessica Gigot) signing books on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. And we always love to keep spreading the word about Phinney by Post, one of the few subscription programs we know of that focuses on backlist books (“lost classics” that we think our subscribers don’t know about but will love). After eight years of the program, we look forward to celebrating our 100th selection next year. Past selections have included such university press books as Janet Lewis’s The Wife of Martin Guerre (Ohio), Charles Sprawson’s Haunts of the Black Masseur (Minnesota), Carolyn See’s Golden Days (California), Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah (Carnegie-Mellon), N. Scott Momaday’s The Names (Arizona), Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (Virginia), and Ella Maillart’s The Cruel Way (Chicago).
This post is part of the 2022 University Press Week blog tour hosted by the Association of University Presses. This year’s theme is #NextUP, reflecting the spirit of constant learning, adaptation, and evolution within scholarly publishing. Read more about UP Week and all of the featured books and blog posts here.