Photo by Peggy Sturdivant 
Doris McDill and Christy McDanold at the kitchen table.

At Large In Ballard: Seeds of The Garden

By Peggy Sturdivant

It’s the same kitchen table in a home near West Woodland Elementary, a bookrack almost always on the front porch. Sitting with her mother Doris McDill, Secret Garden Books owner Christy McDanold talked about the early days when the table was the only physical location for the business. “All I’d really purchased was the name and computer system,” McDanold said. “There was no location, and no books.”

Yet over the course of 22 years McDanold was able build from the near demise of Secret Garden Books and deliver it safely, and firmly, to its Market Street storefront and 40th Anniversary as an Independent Bookseller.

Doris McDill lives with her daughter now, but when McDanold was appealing to over 20 different banks for a loan in 1995 she was still “RVing” the country as part of a ten-year adventure after her husband’s death. It probably goes without saying that mother and daughter are serious readers. As a child in Iowa McDill would go into town with her dad twice a week “for another armload of books from the library.” She and her late husband raised their five children as part of the Foreign Service, with postings in Haiti, and the Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Senegal in Africa.

As for McDanold, she moved to Seattle in “a little yellow Chevette” in May 1980, just a few weeks after the eruption of Mount St. Helens. She worked primarily in social services and youth programs. Once married with young children she would take them to Secret Garden Books on Greenlake Drive North. “I wasn’t a regular customer,” she said, “Because I didn’t have a lot of money.” However she was on the customer mailing list that announced a deepening sale on all the books, the racks, and in small print at the bottom, the business itself.

When McDanold’s mother arrived from her South Dakota ranch, by way of Kansas, she was still trying to find any bank willing to give her a loan. Finally a woman banker at the old Seafirst took a chance on her. Twenty-two years later McDanold won’t pretend it hasn’t been tough, “But I’ve never missed a mortgage payment or my rent. I’ve always made payroll.” The business has managed to survive the leaking roof at the first “new” location on 15th NW and being in business the same time period as the online marketing behemoth Amazon. One almost forgets they began with books and have contributed to the demise of many independent bookstores.

In a newsletter announcing Secret Garden’s 40th Anniversary Party on Saturday, April 1, 10-7 p.m. McDanold began: “Dear Friends, I am writing this from my kitchen table, the same kitchen table…” Although its presence has been constant there are missing places at the table. Her husband Scot McDanold died of cancer in 2003. Their daughter Elizabeth died of cancer in 2007.

Recounting the early days, McDanold said a fellow parent approached her at the playground and said, “You’re going to want to hire me someday.” The name and phone number went into her pocket. After the manager of what had actually been Secret Garden’s second owner was ready to move on, McDanold went looking for that piece of paper, claiming it was probably still in her pocket. “It’s either in a pocket or a pile,” she said, gesturing to the living room. “Everyone who knows me, knows that.”

Her now longtime employee and store manager Susan Scott says, “I remember it differently. She had lost my contact information. But we ran into each other again at the playground.” Scott had worked at one of New York City’s most luminous booksellers, Books & Co. Twenty-one years later at Secret Garden, “I’m still here.”

Looking back on the early days, circa 2005, in a former pet store next to then-Baskin Robbins Ice Cream, McDill and McDanold spoke of the race to open their doors in time for their first author appearance…Madeleine L’Engle.. “The line stretched around the corner.”

That was hundreds of readings, author appearances book fairs, clubs, and book launches ago. That was before finding the right location as a tenant in the Ballard Building on Market Street and carting books over frequently to events co-sponsored with the Ballard Branch of Seattle Public Library. There are simply too many stories, not just on the handmade shelves but in the lives of everyone who works behind the counter and crosses the threshold.

McDill and McDanold identify the main story line that intertwines their lives and independent bookselling. “Family,” said McDanold. Her husband Scot did the build-out at both locations and then became part of the book fairs at schools all over Seattle. Her mother actually owned the book fair part of the business for many years, loading and unloading from her little Ranger pick-up truck. “It’s family pitching in,” McDanold said, “Of course for the kids, the store was sort of a third sibling they didn’t appreciate.”

“It’s the story of people,” McDanold said, “Selling books isn’t about what’s on the shelf, it’s the person standing in front of you. You listen to them, the book is just how you open them up.”

The community is invited to share memories and join in a daylong celebration on Saturday, April 1, 2017, 10-7 p.m. secretgardenbooks.com

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