MEMORY’S LAST BREATH goes on a pre-publication field trip: Second stop, Third Place Books, Seattle

Have you heard the one about Doña Quixote walking into Third Place Books in Forest Park, Seattle?

So Peter and I meet Third Place’s managing partner Robert Sindelar, and the first thing he tells us after the introductions is that he just spoke to Betsy Burton, founder and co-owner of The King’s English in Salt Lake City! While the coincidence of his call and the arrival of visitors from Salt Lake City sounds like pure serendipity, it really isn’t: Robert frequently speaks to Betsy. This connection is testimony to Robert’s lifelong (and he’s still very young!) consummate devotion to books and readers: in July, he will take over from Betsy Burton as the president of the American Booksellers Association—a national organization that shares knowledge and enables networking amongst peers in the book business, and foster relationships between publishers and booksellers.

(The main photo of this blog shows Peter and me with Robert in the Forest Park store.)


The outgoing and incoming presidents of the America Bookseller’s Association: Betsy Burton of Salt Lake City’s The King’s English and Robert Sindelar of Third Place Books.

Robert’s incumbency in the book business started when, while still in college, he worked part-time as a bookseller at Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida. After college, he set out to Seattle to pursue his goal of becoming an actor and director in the regional theater scene and simultaneously started working as a bookseller at The Elliott Bay Book Company. Seven years later, despite productive engagement in both the theatre and as a bookseller, he experienced “a late-20s existential crisis,” feeling that he “had to have a career.” While Robert was pondering his future, Ron Sher, a part-owner of Elliott Bay at the time, announced plans to open a bookstore in Lake Forest Park. He offered Sindelar the job of manager (1999). The store was named “Third Place Books,” after a concept introduced by Ray Oldenburg, an urban sociologist who writes about the importance of informal public gathering places. In his books Celebrating The Third Place and The Great Good Place, he defines the third place as the social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home (“first place”) and work (“second place”). Examples of third places would be a British pub, a barbershop, a public library, the pub “Cheers” in the TV show or, for Peter and me, the Starbucks within walking distance of our house. Places, in other words, “where everybody knows your name.”


Third Places: Cheers. Peter and Gerda celebrate our 37th wedding anniversary at the Starbucks on 2100 S and 700 East–our third place before our current Starbucks, 2100 S and State, was built. Yes, a quick cup of coffee was our only homage to our marriage during a very busy work week.

Sindelar told us that each of the three Third Place stores focuses deliberately and intentionally on creating a community “around books and the ideas inside them.” Each store strives to reflect and maintain the culture of its surrounding community. Sindelar’s goal as manager is to make the store feel welcoming to “all ages, all sizes….Being multigenerational is important to our success. Everyone in the household should like to be there.” He believes that making even casual visitors and people who don’t necessarily think of themselves as book people feel welcome is one way “to grow a reading public.” (ABA)

Like my and Peter’s first stop, Elliot Bay Book Company, Forest Lake’s Third Place store has an overarching sense of spaciousness. In this respect, both stores remind me of one of my Salt Lake City holy spaces: Salt Lake City’s Downtown Library. While the vastness of the SLC library design appropriates the vertical, however, that of Third Place and Elliot Bay embrace the horizontal.


The soaring atrium of the Salt Lake City Downtown Public Library, designed by Moshe Safdi (Salt Lake Tribune). The expansive interior of Third Place Books, Forest Lake, Seattle.

Third Place’s focus on community is reflected in the “Commons” that is part of the store’s indoor space. A resident from a nearby neighborhood, Anne Stadler, calls this gathering space “Lake Forest Park’s indoor park….Picture a sizeable common space,”  she writes,” under an atrium that lets in natural light. It is ringed with locally owned cafes, and next to a bookstore. People talk and eat around a motley assortment of tables. Some work at laptop computers. Two middle schoolers play chess on a floor chess board with large chess pieces. A four year old pushes his train around a small track on the table while waiting for Mom to bring food. Seniors play Mah Jong at several tables. A book club is discussing their latest book at another. Up at the stage, sound is being adjusted for a flute player, a guitarist, and a drummer who will be playing some- time during the next half hour. That’s pretty typical of Third Place Commons in Lake Forest Park.”


Left, Community members attend an author event at Third Place Commons. Right, Two middle schoolers play chess at the Commons’ giant board.

While the design of the store and the attitude of its management are the foundation of Third Place’s community building, nothing would come of it without the people who work there. We met a number of people in addition to Robert Sindelar, and I would love to wander the shelves in search of my perfect book of the day with every one of them. I would particularly like a tour with Zak Nelson, who recently joined the Forest Park store as events and marketing manager. Other than having been bookseller for Borders and, most recently, Amazon Books, he has also worked with independent bookstores during his 20-year career in the book business. Most significantly for my wish-list tour, though, is that he continues to be a book reviewer for Shelf Awareness, which publishes two newsletters, one for general readers and one for people in the book business. Shelf Awareness for Readers appears Tuesdays and Fridays and helps readers discover the 25 best books of the week (Shelf Awareness).


Left, Zak Nelson: “I am a writer, bookseller, and editor who connects authors with audiences and vice versa. To me, books are a platform for growing and strengthening communities” (Linked-In). Right, bookseller Rene Holderman, Gerda, Robert Sindelar, and Emily Adams at Third Place books.

Should you ever find yourself in Seattle, don’t miss Third Place Books. It fits Oldenburg’s description of a home away from home, where the regulars “are like Emerson’s ‘commended stranger’ who represents humanity anew, who offers a new mirror in which to view ourselves, and who thus breathes life into our conversation.” Thanks so much, everyone at Third Place, for the rich conversation that restored for me, in Emerson’s words, “the nimblest fancy, a richer memory, [my] dumb devil [having] taken leave for a time” (Goodreads).