There are two Third Place Books locations. The original sits in the middle of a large strip mall in the tiny suburb of Lake Forest Park just outside of Seattle. The second is a part of the Ravenna neighborhood in Seattle proper. Both bookstores strive to bring a unique experience to their customers, acting as a social gathering space as well as bookstores.
Earlier this week I sat down with Erin Ball at the Lake Forest Park location. We found a table in the The Commons, a gathering space attached to the bookstore. Around us people studied, read books, hung out, and drank coffee from the restaurant. The din was minimal, and we were able to have a great conversation among the crowd.
Erin has worked at both stores off and on since 2008, before, during, and after attending law school. She recently became the assistant manager at the Lake Forest Park location. When I asked her if this meant she has decided that bookselling is a better choice than pursuing law, she laughs and says, “at least for now.”
[Judy Oldfield] Could you tell me in your own words the philosophy behind the “Third Place” in Third Place Books?
[Erin Ball] The philosophy is that you need three places in life. You need 1. your home, 2. your work, and 3. your community space. And that’s what Third Place Books tries to do with The Commons and the restaurant. It’s a place for people to gather, to have meetings, to study, that sort of thing. The bookstore is the centerpiece. They tried to replicate that at the Ravenna location, just on a smaller scale.
[JO] What does the Third Place mean for you personally? This is both a place where you work and a community space. Do those lines blur for you?
[EB] It does. Especially when I was at the Ravenna store, because there’s a pub in the Ravenna store. A lot of my friends would come visit there. After work we’d meet, and that would become more of a community space for me. It really does blur the lines. It’s hard to remember that you’re at work sometimes.
[JO] So it blurs it in a good way then.
[EB] In a good way, yeah.
[JO] Do you find there’s a difference between the locations? The Ravenna location is urban, it’s very close to the University of Washington. This one, the Lake Forest Park store, is a little farther out. It’s still very close to Seattle, but it’s more suburban. It’s in a strip mall.
[EB] Yeah, it’s a totally different feeling. This store feels a lot more like a community center, because Lake Forest Park is so small and this is the town center. People gravitate here. It happens during windstorms when the power is out, people come here. When it’s hot, people come here. And Ravenna doesn’t have quite the same feel. We still have a lot of customers who come in multiple times a week. But it’s less of a sit-down gathering place.
[JO] Is the tenor of each store different then? Is the clientele and the books that they’re buying any different?
[EB] It’s strikingly different. Here at Lake Forest Park it’s a little more conservative. Especially politically. In Ravenna there are a lot of young families and a lot more experimental fiction. It’s really interesting to see how how much of one particular title each store will sell. It’s crazy.
[JO] And you do a lot of book events here. You had Jimmy Carter come.
[EB] Yes, we did. That was very exciting. It was one of our biggest events. A thousand people went through the signing line. It was really fun, actually. We closed the store and it was really great.
[JO] What keeps you motivated to come in every day, year in and year out?
[EB] I find bookstores to be incredibly rewarding. Especially independent bookstores. Especially bookstores that the community revolves around. I think they’re experiencing a resurgence, which is great. . . . Books are my passion.
[JO] What books do you find yourself recommending over and over?
[EB] What I recommend most is probably a book called Stoner by John Williams. It’s not what it sounds like. It’s about a man named William Stoner. He’s born into farming in the early 1900’s but he ends up going to college and studying literature. It’s really just a quiet novel about his life. It’s so well done, and so perfectly paced and it’s sad and not sad and just really beautiful. And I feel like it appeals to so many people.
[JO] I find that a lot of booksellers carve out their niche in the bookstore that they work in. Do you have a special part of the bookstore that you’re really proud of?
[EB] Well I run the blog. But what I’ve started more recently is the Grown-Up Storytime that we have at the Ravenna store. I think it’s my favorite thing that I do. It’s the third monday of every month. They meet at seven in the pub in a secret room. We drink and read outloud. It’s mostly me reading. It’s gotten a really nice core following and I really enjoy it.
[JO] So you’re reading short stories—published works, right?
[EB] Yeah, published works. It’s not a writing circle. Usually I’ll do a short story, an article, and maybe a piece from the Internet.
[JO] What else is important to you, as a bookseller?
[EB] Books about women and by women. They should be read more. Especially by men.
When I started here a lot of the guys just didn’t read women and that was startling. Like some guys had never read Jane Austen.
[JO] And that’s crazy! People don’t realize that Jane Austen is satire. So it’s not the happy story of a marriage or anything like that. Yeah, they have a happy ending, but I almost feel like those are just tacked on.
[EB] To keep your interest, I guess.
[JO] Yeah. I’ve reviewed Bad Feminist and Everything I Never Told You, and I interviewed Dolen Perkins-Valdez for Libro’s blog. Because those were the books I was excited about and wanted other people to be excited about them.
[EB] There’s a website I get a lot of my reading lists from, FlavorWire. And they do pretty good lists. But there was another one I was looking at about the 50 coolest authors and there were two women on there. Two.
[JO] BookRiot’s pretty good.
[JO] What’s on your TBR list?
[EB] Gosh. There’s a Claire Vaye Watkins book (she wrote a book of short stories called Battleborn a couple years ago). She has a new novel coming out called Gold Fame Citrus, which I’m really excited about.
[JO] Yeah, I want to read that too.
[EB] Yeah, I have the advanced review copy, I just haven’t gotten to it. The new Patti Smith book, because Just Kids was amazing.
[JO] I saw her at Seattle Arts & Lectures when she was promoting that one. And it was fantastic.
[EB] She’s coming again. And I’d love to go. She’s great.
What’s your favorite indie bookstore? Let us know!