Story and photos by Tony Lystra
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
Now that the Westwood Village Barnes & Noble has closed its doors, Pegasus Book Exchange is West Seattle’s last surviving bookstore — and, despite a deluge of obituaries for America’s independent bookstores, business is booming at the family-owned store at 4553 California Avenue SW, employees say.
Eric Ogriseck, who has worked at the store for seven years, said 2018 was the best year in Pegasus’ history. The banner year was, no doubt, helped along by last year’s closure of Merryweather Books, just a few storefronts up California Avenue. Still, Ogriseck said, revenues at Pegasus have been jumping roughly 5-10 percent in recent years.
The vast majority of the book store’s shelves are piled with used books, but the store started selling a few new titles more than a decade ago, when customers were clamoring for new copies of the hit teen vampire drama Twilight.
With Barnes & Noble closing, Ogriseck said more books are on their way to Pegasus, which has been owned for nearly four decades by Fred and Lanthe Epps, of Mount Vernon, and managed by their grown daughter Emma Epps.
“We have to kind of stay with the times,” said Ogriseck, who added that the store will likely increase its new book inventory by 10 percent.
The store’s single bestselling book of all time is Michelle Obama‘s “Becoming.” Pegasus has sold 180 new copies of the former First Lady’s memoir since its November release, “which is insane for us,” Ogriseck said.
“Michelle Obama is a game-changer for us,” he said. That single book, Ogriseck said, showed that Pegasus’ patrons want to buy new books — and a lot of them.
Ogriseck said Obama’s book sold so well at least partly because of the neighborhood Barnes & Noble store’s then-impending closure.
“This is the most (new books of every title) we’ve ordered for Christmas and it paid off,” he said.
Shoppers in The Junction mostly come to Pegasus for a gently treated volume of that book they’ve been meaning to read, to discover oddities hidden the among the store’s weathered shelves, and to chat with the store’s clerks, who seem to know everyone.
“I loved seeing your mom during the holidays,” Ogriseck said to a woman whose mother had visited from Staten Island. He then enthused about the joys of a New York accent.
A short time later, Ogriseck waved away cash from a man with shoulder-length brown hair who was trying to pay for a cheap paperback. “I’ve got ya, bro,” Ogriseck said.
And then, moments later, Ogriseck cracked a wild smile and boisterously refused to serve a pair of teenage girls, both clearly regular customers. The girls nearly doubled over with laughter.
“You can say anything in a bookstore,” Ogriseck said. “We’re kind of like bartenders of the mind.”
Ogriseck, who is one of the store’s three employees, said parents often drop off their kids, who wander the stacks and squat to the floor, cracking science fiction and fantasy books and reading for hours.
“It’s a safe place to be,” he said.
Regulars also keep coming back to take advantage of Pegasus’s trade-in policy. The store offers customers half of what it would sell a book for, which patrons can keep as a store credit. Customers can then pay for half a purchased book’s price with their store credit. (If Pegasus would sell your used book for $10, you would get $5 in store credit. If you buy a $4 book, you can use $2 of your store credit and pay $2 cash.)
On a recent Saturday afternoon, a couple lugged in two plastic garbage bags strained by the sharp edges of already-read hardcovers. Ogriseck tore open the bags and picked through the piles, marveling at a title he’d never seen before: “Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality — Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century.” No bundle of used books hauled in by customers is ever the same, he said.
Behind Ogriseck was an aged, metal card catalogue, which contains handwritten, alphabetized notecards, each keeping track of customers’ store credits. Ogriseck said the cabinet stores more than 18,000 names collected over more than 30 years. The store sometimes honors the decades-old credits of dead patrons for surviving family members who come to shop, he said.
Among the store’s rarer titles is a 1965 first edition, first printing of the sci-fi classic “Dune,” by Frank Herbert, which is on sale for $4,500. Another: A first printing of James Matthew Barrie‘s “Peter Pan” for $800.
“This place is like a museum,” said Bob Setzer of West Seattle, who has worked in the printing and book business, as a pressman, editor, and book broker, since 1953. “This guy carries books no one else has.”
On this day, Setzer was headed home with a less-exotic but prized find: a $3 Winston Churchill biography.
Conventional hand-wringing says Amazon — which sells nearly half of the books Americans buy — is driving family-owned bookstores like Pegasus out of business.
Independent bookstores did indeed slip into what looked to be a death spiral in 1995. Over the next five years, 43 percent of U.S. independent bookstores closed. But independent bookstores have enjoyed a surprising comeback. Between 2009 and last year, their numbers increased by 40 percent, to more than 2,300 across the U.S.
That’s due partly to the hole left in the marketplace after Borders closed its doors in 2011, but it’s also true that communities have come to cherish a neighborhood bookstore as authentic and tangible, industry observers say.
In fact, Amazon has managed to cause more trouble for big brick-and-mortar chains than it has for charming and dusty mom-and-pop stores. Amazon was largely credited with slaying Borders, which was the second-largest bookstore in the U.S. Barnes & Noble, meanwhile, has been sputtering for years. Its sales have steadily plummeted, and it’s been shuttering stores and slashing its workforce. The company has been desperately trying to find its second act, even selling toys and even planning to offer alcohol in its cafes. Last summer, the company abruptly fired its CEO, its fourth in five years.
Barnes & Noble has been a source for freshly read, nearly new books for Pegasus. As soon as they’ve turned the last page of a popular title bought new at Barnes & Noble, customers often bring it to Pegasus for trade, Ogriseck said. He wondered if people will trade fewer new titles now that the Westwood Barnes & Noble has closed.
Still, he said many customers have insisted that at least one West Seattle bookstore survive. Some, he said, pay Pegasus a premium to get them a new book, even if it means employees simply order the title from Amazon and have it delivered to the West Seattle store for pickup.
“I’ve never worked in a place where people want to support a business so much,” Ogriseck said.