Sunday, July 29, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Shorey's Used And Rare -- Seattle's Oldest Bookstore Is Poised On The Brink Of The Computer-Search Age

``How is this for doggedness?'' an amazed North Seattle woman, Alma Turner, recently wrote The Times. ``I was not just pleased to have the book found, but stunned by the fact that it took nineteen years to find it. Shorey's apparently never gives up.''

Never gives up, indeed.

At Shorey's Bookstore on May 21, 1971, Turner ordered an out-of-print book by David E. Roberts, ``The Grandeur and Misery of Man,'' which was published in 1955 by Oxford University Press. On June 12, 1990, Shorey's informed her they finally had located the book.

``I just looked at this notice, showed it to my husband and we each broke out laughing,'' wrote Turner.

She is not alone in her astonishment and delight. Such stories are legion, for Shorey's has been pulling off similar feats for a full century: The family-run institution is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, easily making it the oldest bookstore in Seattle and one of the oldest in the nation.

Homer Henderson, who has worked at Shorey's since 1974, recalls the response of one customer who was told that her long-sought book had finally arrived: `` `Well,' she said, `I ordered it for my daughter. But I'll accept it for my granddaughter.' ''

For years, her order had been part of Shorey's ``customer wants'' list, a vast file of 3-by-5 cards where all requests go whenever a standard book search - phone calls and advertising in antiquarian-book journals - proves fruitless after three or four months.

``We don't throw out these `wants' until we either find the book or the customer tells us they no longer want it,'' says Jim Todd, 36, who in 1975 joined his father, J.W. ``Bill'' Todd, in running the business. ``We sell at least 100 books a month that are on our `wants' list.

``There's virtually no book that we have to say: `I can't help you,' '' adds Todd, ``because we always have ways of checking further. If people want it bad enough and don't mind waiting, we'll eventually get the book.''

In the near future, they also may get it sooner rather than later. Shorey's book-search service and its ``wants'' list are being computerized. Todd says it will allow them to handle more than twice the 300 to 400 laborious books searches they now conduct each month.

Computerization also will allow them to enter the 20th-century book business, in some opinions. Said a longtime observer of Seattle's antiquarian-book scene: ``One thing you could say about Shorey's is that it's a very good specimen of a 19th-century bookstore still in operation.''

Anyone who has visited its rambling quarters at 110 Union St., between First and Second avenues, is apt to agree. Shorey's space on the second floor of the old office building - its main sales level - is a warren of 34 rooms crammed floor-to-ceiling with books. Despite its size, it has a ramshackle coziness, with air redolent of old furniture and older paper.

``The only thing I don't really handle is hardcore porno, but other than that, we try to stock something on everything,'' says Bill Todd, who at 75 has been part of the operation for 57 years. ``I imagine that, counting paperbacks, we must stock a million volumes. And counting letters, magazines, old prints, maps and ephemera, we probably have another million.''

The breadth of its collection, not the depth, is Shorey's stock in trade. As the younger Todd readily admits, ``It's harder to make the business pay when you carry everything under the sun, but basically our philosophy is to try to fill holes. And if there's a hole in some subject, we'll try to fill it, even with new books.'' New books, he said, account for only about 5 percent of Shorey's business.

That everything-under-the-sun philosophy doesn't always earn the respect of other Seattle antiquarian book dealers, who tend to be specialists dealing in a fairly narrow range of subjects.

``Shorey's is sort of an anomaly in the business, and a lot of their activities are a bit of a laughingstock to others in the trade,'' says W.O. Moye, an industry veteran and a loquacious, self-described curmudgeon who sells used books out of his North Seattle home. ``Quantity is not always necessarily an indication of quality - or even knowledge.''

Knowledgeable observers also disagree with Shorey's practice of taking book collections on consignment, rather than buying collections outright.

``That's what you want - a good, clean cut,'' said Robert Monroe, the retired head of special collections in the University of Washington library. ``The seller gets paid, and then you get the collection and try to get the best price you can on it.''

Monroe added, however, that Shorey's practice ``still gives people the opportunity to buy books that don't turn up on the market very often.'' And Jim Todd of Shorey's defends the practice, maintaining that - unless the seller is strapped for cash - a consignment arrangement allows them to eventually make more money for the seller than an initial cash purchase.

Monroe also noted that Shorey's has strong collections in certain areas - Western Americana, Alaskana and natural history - but that the store ``is much less selective'' in most areas.

``That approach has left them with a lot of materials that have remained in the store for a long time,'' said Monroe. ``Now, they see this as a strong feature, of course. If you're interested in aeronautics, or fiction, or history, it's still certainly a bookstore you would want to go to.''

Shorey's rates high on having an informal, friendly atmosphere, he said. ``Always go where you feel comfortable, I think - and getting acquainted with the bookseller is the key.''

Some Seattle book lovers are so well acquainted that they've been frequenting Shorey's dusty aisles for half a century. And when the store moved to its present location in 1975, many of them got into the act, forming a sort of bucket brigade of book movers.

``Some of our regular customers were volunteers,'' recalled Jim Todd, who entered the business that year after deciding not to continue studies toward a degree in architecture. ``They helped us, and we gave them credit toward book purchases.''

The brigade will probably be called back to active duty soon, as plans are nearly complete for a move to a new downtown location, in the South Arcade Building at the south end of the Pike Place Market, across from Shorey's present site. The move is prompted by a desire to find a long-term home somewhat insulated from the escalating rents brought on by First Avenue redevelopment, while remaining accessible to regular customers as well as the foot traffic generated by the market.

The move will be the fourth since Samuel F. Shorey - Bill Todd's great uncle - opened his first bookstore near Third Avenue and Yesler Way in 1890. A year later, he moved to Third and Cherry, and remained there until 1922, when he moved to the corner of Third and Marion. In 1975, the store moved to its present location. The elder Todd has watched most of those changes.

``Uncle Sam started it, and Dad worked with him, but they didn't get along,'' said Todd, whose shy-seeming manner soon reveals a man of wide-ranging interests and strongly held opinions. ``Sam was a fussy little bachelor who hated women mightily and made his feelings known.''

Todd's father returned to the family home in North Dakota and ran a hardware store until Sam died in 1932. Sam's brother - ``not really a book man'' - then asked him to come back and take over the store, and the Todd branch of the family has run it ever since.

``People who think this is a nice intellectual pursuit don't realize it's a back-breaking job,'' said Todd, who began there in 1933.

Todd is that rarest of combinations, a teetotaler and a dedicated steelhead fisherman, and with son Jim taking over more day-to-day business decisions, he has time to follow another passion: writing (``I've been a scribbler all my life; it comes pretty easy to me, and some people seem to like it.'')

In recent years, for friends and customers, Todd has churned out humorous verse, Japanese haikus, and essays on everything from the evils of drugs and drink to Mikhail Gorbachev (``I'm something of a fan of his''). He also is working on a history of Shorey's Bookstore while trying to interest a library in his collection of a quarter-million company and personal letters - including correspondence with Jack London and President Harry S. Truman - that chart much of the history of book selling in Seattle.

Among other things, that material recalls Shorey Publications, a publishing arm that flourished from the 1960s to the late '70s and which - until the IRS cracked down on publishing-house inventories - made photo-offset reproductions of rare items available to students and scholars.

It would also recount the brief history of the four smaller bookstores that Shorey's spawned in the '70s and early '80s, as well as note prominent Seattle antiquarian book dealers, such as Robert Mattila and Don Glover, who have been Shorey employees. That staff now holds fairly steady at about 10.

``I've considered going on my own a couple times,'' admits 16-year-veteran Homer Henderson, a Princeton graduate who began work there while earning a master's degree in library science at the UW. ``But I like the collegiality of Shorey's, I like being part of an organization. I don't know if `venerable' is the right word, but Shorey's has been around a long time.''

And it's certain to last longer:

``It's a business that constantly stretches the mind, and it challenges you beyond belief,'' says Bill Todd. ``. . . I wish I had another 70 years to do it.

``I would redeem the world tomorrow, if I could, with literature and books.''

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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