At 400 square feet, Seattle’s Madison Books fits in place like a puzzle piece among the tree-shaded businesses of East Madison Street. “This neighborhood in Seattle feels to me like one of the least changed parts of the city,” says manager James Crossley. “It’s very walkable, and we don’t draw a ton of tourist traffic.”
When local indie Madison Park Books closed in 2005, the neighborhood was left without a bookstore. In 2018, longtime resident Susan Moseley, who fondly remembered the old shop, worked with Phinney Books owner Tom Nissley to open a new branch there. Nissley invited Crossley, a former staffer at Mercer Island’s Island Books and an active Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association member, to become manager. “James is one of the best readers and booksellers I know, and that made the new bookstore seem feasible,” Nissley says. “You have to have the right person, especially for a little bookstore, because it’s an expression of personality.”
Nissley and Crossley leased the small space, which accommodates an inventory of around 7,000 titles despite minimal storage area (“Receiving is right at the counter,” Nissley says). A builder installed slim steel shelves from floor to ceiling, customizing them to meet every wall angle and make the most of the limited real estate. After a holiday pop-up in December 2018, Madison Books officially opened in April 2019.
Publishers and distributors already knew Phinney Books, which helped Madison start up efficiently. “We had good support from the beginning,” Crossley says, “and Tom and I didn’t have to tackle that part of the learning curve.” With two locations, Nissley and Crossley each have backup.
“Pandemic-wise, it was nice to have two people strategizing, with our staffs as well,” Nissley says. “One of us would say, ‘I’m trying this out,’ and then we’d have a back and forth. But I’d call Madison Books fairly autonomous.”
Crossley concurs. “Fiscally speaking, we’re part of the same corporation, but sometimes, day to day, we don’t interact at all,” he says. “Each neighborhood wants its own thing, too.” At Madison, that means a robust general interest selection, plus specialties in small-press titles, literary fiction, and works in translation. Part-time staffers include an in-house authority on mystery/crime and a fan of inclusive YA and new adult titles.
When the pandemic interrupted Crossley’s plans to host an in-person event with Iona Whishaw, who writes the Lane Winslow mysteries, he reached out to Paulina Springs Books in Sisters, Ore., and Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Mont., and together they launched the Books in Common Northwest series. Their first cohosted event was an online conversation between Whishaw and Elizabeth George of the Inspector Lynley mysteries. Two years later, more than 70 author talks are available on BICNW’s YouTube channel.
Crossley has coordinated other online events, including the Biblioasis Indie All-Star Game, during which booksellers touted their favorite titles and provided the audience with links to online ordering. The pitch-fest, complete with trading card portraits of the indie bookstore presenters, sold books and raised more than $500 for BINC through a donation option on Bookshop.org.
Crossley believes in “transferring success into a viable opportunity” through such indie partnerships and mentorship. “One of my wishes for Madison Books is to provide room to break in other booksellers, to give them a full-time job,” he says. “I’m interested in making these jobs accessible to people from marginalized communities, and in helping every rank-and-file employee see bookselling as a possible career.”
At Madison Books, Crossley says, “we have a very small footprint, and we punch above our weight.”