Photo by Peggy Sturdivant
The east side of Ballard's book row: John Michael Lang & Taylor Bowie at street level. Mark Anderson above.

At Large in Ballard: The art of browsing

By Peggy Sturdivant

There is a “book row” taking shape (triangular) in Ballard between the historic Murphy Building and the finally reopened retail corner of 20th NW. The most visible businesses are All the Best Pet Care and Bauhaus Coffee on Market. But look south on 20th NW, and be prepared to relearn the meaning of browsing.

Before browser referred to a program used to navigate the Internet by connecting with a Web system, but after it first described an animal that feeds on the leaves and shoots of trees, it was almost always associated with someone looking at books. As a verb, browsing is usually associated with perusing merchandise. The clerk asks, “Can I help you?” Potential customer answers, “Just browsing.”

Purveyors of used and rare books encourage browsing because it’s likely that their in-house customer isn’t looking for a specific volume, but as a book lover may discover something they didn’t even know existed. And now there’s a whole Ballard commercial area for those who prefer grazing used books to nibbling tree shoots, with its nexus at the Murphy Building.

The 1909 Murphy Building is co-owned by Taylor Bowie and his sister. Their grandparents started Ballard’s own Bowie Electric just blocks away. Bowie has been in book business 48 years which leads one to expect a much older man, until you learn that he began his book scouting days as a school boy in the 60’s. He was longtime Pioneer Square bookseller, which is where John Michael Lang first met and worked with him.

Raised in a small Oregon town (but one that is gateway to a National Park), John Michael Lang came to the book business, “as a reader from earliest childhood.” After studying literature at Arizona State he worked his way west and became acquainted with Taylor Bowie. After Bowie closed his Pioneer Square store Lang found his own niche as a rare and antiquarian bookseller, for 10 years in Wallingford and on the street level of the Murphy Building (5416 20th NW) for the last three years (next to Ballard Time Shop). Taylor Bowie is landlord and partner.

Just above the office and bookshelves of John Michael Lang Fine Books, on the mezzanine level, are Mark Anderson and his wife Nora Butler Anderson. Anderson’s Books & Prints is very conducive for browsing, not just for books but also posters, albums, some artwork. “Anything on paper,” Mark Anderson says. As a military brat he says of books, “You learn to find friends you can keep.” After his father retired in Nebraska, Anderson worked for Omaha’s premier bookstore. After leaving Nebraska he tried New York City for a few months, and concluded Los Angeles was no better merely by driving through and kept going until Seattle.

Anderson then sought out a fellow former Nebraskan who was in the book business. His own path to becoming a bookseller started with acquiring and then re-selling one book, although he doesn’t remember which one. He worked many odd jobs on the way to the second floor space of Anderson’s Books & Prints where he and Nora have welcomed browsers since 2010, while shipping books all over the world.

Meanwhile across the street, Twice Sold Tales has resurfaced, with U-District Manager John MacBeath Watkins now back in the book business as owner and partner. Bauhaus Coffee has finally opened in the space left vacant by Epilogue Books when there was an untenable rent increase. Compared to Lang’s rare and antiquarian books and the Anderson’s collection and collectibles Watkins stocks what he calls “reading books.” Twice Sold Tales can be entered on 20th NW or through the Bauhaus, for that reason there will probably not be the return of the Twice Sold cat(s), still depicted on the business card.

The overlap of these booksellers is that their books are not new, even if they are too valuable to have ever been read. For Bowie, Lang and the Andersons selling over the Internet affords them to have storefront locations. For John Michael Lang Fine Books, “Sales through the door are minimal at best.” However it allows a place for prospective buyers to see items for sale. If he’s on-site people are welcome to enter to browse, but he doesn’t commit to regular hours in case he is off book scouting. Lang has developed connections such that people know to contact him when collections are going on the market. “It’s easy to acquire inventory,” Lang said, “High quality inventory is the real trick.”

Upstairs the Andersons have a broad collection, partly inspired by a serendipitous visit in London to the Sir John Soane Museum, the late architect’s home kept intact with his books, art, collections and sundry antiquities (including a sarcophagus). Every handwritten receipt from Anderson’s Books & Arts states:

Always consult us before disposing of Books, Prints, Maps, Manuscripts, Documents, Posters, Photographs, Albums, Art, Magazines, Autographs, Post Cards, Diaries, Journals or other memorabilia of
an historic or interesting nature.

The other overlap is that all the owners absolutely love books and enjoy the collegial nature of the burgeoning bookseller’s triangle. “We’re all drawn to different subjects and books,” Mark Anderson said, “It’s good to be together.”

Let the browsing begin:

Anderson’s Books & Prints
http://www.andersonsbooks.com/about.php
5418 NW 20th Mezzanine (M-S 1-6) 206.782.1550

John Michael Lang Fine Books
http://www.jmlbooks.com/shop/jmlbooks/index.html
5416 NW 20th (M-F 12-5, best to call) 206.624.4100

Twice Sold Tales
2001 NW Market Street (Daily 12-8. Happy Hour 6-8 p.m. daily 25% off all titles) 206.545.4226

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