Mercer Street Books

Mercer Street Books has established itself as a world-renowned neighbourhood bookstore.

Reads in the Neighborhood
The sunny storefront at 7 Mercer Street has been home to woman-owned bookstores for nearly 40 years. Titlewave Books, reportedly August Wilson’s favourite Seattle bookstore, occupied the address for more than two decades before closing in 2004. Jamie Lutton then used the space for five years as an outpost of her Twice Sold Tales bookstore chain.

Debbie Sarow took over the storefront in 2009 and transformed it into Mercer Street Books, a used bookstore. Sarow, a former employee of Twice Sold Tales and antiquarian bookseller Wessel & Lieberman in Pioneer Square, imbued every inch of the shop with her meticulous, thoughtful charm. Mercer Street Books, with its tall, glowing umber bookshelves and whimsical decorations such as an antique candlestick telephone, is reminiscent of the grand antiquarian shops of Paris and London — a touch of European stateliness right next to Seattle Center in the Uptown neighbourhood.

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Sarow believed that a good bookstore was like a party, and she shaped Mercer Street Books to fit that philosophy, welcoming both neighbours and tourists from nearby Seattle Center. Her shop grew a devoted following of customers who appreciated its warmth, unique beauty, and meticulously curated selection of books.

Following a cancer diagnosis in 2016, Sarow sought assistance in running Mercer Street Books. Jessica Hurst, a long-time Seattle bookseller, was hired. Hurst, a veteran of Lake Forest Park’s Third Place Books, had been working at Pike Place Market used bookseller Lamplight Books since 2014, and Sarow worked out a deal with Lamplight owner Joe Fridlund in which Hurst would split her time between the two stores.

“It was a fantastic place to work,” Hurst says. “However, Joe and Debbie’s stores couldn’t be more dissimilar.” “Lamplight’s new arrival area is literally a waist-high pile of books in front of his door,” for example, while customers entering Mercer Street Books for the first time frequently refuse to believe the shop, with its “perfect order and perfect curation,” is a used bookstore.

Sarow’s health improved, and she and her partner began to plan a trip around the world. Hurst took a full-time position at Mercer Street Books with the intention of managing the store while Sarow travelled the world. Even the best organiser in Seattle bookselling couldn’t have predicted what happened next.

“Debbie had always said she would go to Paris if she was given a terminal cancer diagnosis,” Hurst recalls. “Then she got a call while we were both in the shop.” She dragged me up to the office by the arm and told me she was going to Paris on Wednesday.”

The rest of the conversation is a blur for Hurst: “She needed me to run the shop, and she wanted to know what I thought about buying it, and she cared about me very much, and goodbye,” Sarow said.

“And then, conscious, I never saw her again,” Hurst says.

Sarow flew to Paris and died in August of this year. Hurst purchased Mercer Street Books from Sarow’s partner in 2020.

“Debbie was a fantastic boss.” She was very communicative and a joy to be around, but she was also very specific. “It felt like I was watching an artist at work,” Hurst says. “When I took over the bookstore, my greatest desire was to serve it and to preserve her vision.”

Those who know Sarow say she would be pleased with Hurst’s work at Mercer Street Books. It’s still a stunning space, with vibrant plant sprays framing a pristine selection of quality used books. The library card catalogues at the front of the store are still stocked with small items waiting to be discovered and purchased by curious customers: stationary, antique tools, and minicomics and postcards illustrated by former Mercer Street bookseller and children’s book author Aaron Bagley.

Hurst claims that a large community of international tourists make Mercer Street Books a point of visiting every time they visit town, and Uptown is fiercely loyal to the shop. “I greet half of the people who come in by name,” Hurst says. “We get KEXP DJs, people on break from Dick’s Drive-In, volunteers from SIFF Uptown, Seattle Storm players,” and world-famous actors visiting during their runs at Seattle Repertory Theater.

However, Hurst still encounters Seattle residents who have never heard of Mercer Street Books. “It’s kind of strange,” she muses. “We’re well-known around the world, but not so much in the city.”

Even though Hurst still follows Sarow’s strict no-social-media policy — the store’s website is as bare-bones today as it was when Sarow was in charge — word is getting out. According to Hurst, July was Mercer Street Books’ second-busiest month in terms of sales.

Every day, the party that Sarow started continues, and Hurst and her two employees are dedicated to buying and stocking the best used books to keep the conversation going. “I have customers who would enjoy each other’s company but I’m not sure how to introduce them,” Hurst says. “The books that the other one buys are always sold to me by one of them.” It’s a network of people who don’t know each other.”

“This is what a used bookstore is: a silent community,” she concludes.

What are customers reading at Mercer Street Books?
According to Jessica Hurst, owner of Mercer Street Books, Uptown’s community changed during the pandemic. “The neighbourhood became younger and more diverse,” she explains. As a result, the store’s inventory changed in tandem with its customer base.

Mercer Street Books’ children’s section, which was already excellent before the pandemic, became even more vibrant. “And we see a lot of current fiction for every demographic you can think of,” Hurst says, highlighting “queer romances and great romances for Black people.”

Given its proximity to some of the city’s most important arts organisations, Mercer Street Books has developed a number of excellent arts sections. “With SIFF Cinema so close, we have a fantastic film section.” Because we are so close to the arena, we have a very strong music section. “We have a very good section for plays and theatre biographies, and there are multiple theatres within Seattle Center,” Hurst says.

Mercer Street Books prides itself on its used book selection, but it always has one new title in stock. Gina Siciliano of Mercer Street Books published “I Know What I Am,” a comic-book biography of Italian baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, with Seattle comics publisher Fantagraphics in 2019. The beautifully illustrated comic reframes Gentileschi’s life and work in 17th century Rome, where she struggled for acceptance as a trailblazing female artist. Copies of the book are always available at the store’s front counter.

“It’s in its third edition now, and it’s still flying off the shelves,” Hurst says.