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Sunday, March 9, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Rick Simonson's Reputation At Elliott Bay Book Co. Speaks Volumes

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

He's so respected among editors and publishers that his excitement about a book can spur a West Coast, if not national, book tour for an author who might otherwise get a skimpy promotion budget. -----------------------------------------------------------------

Five in the morning in a Mount Baker bungalow. A warm reading lamp. A sagging chair. A stack of books. Quiet. Except for the sound of turning pages.

Rick Simonson, wrapped in an old bathrobe and a pair of purple socks, has already perused passages of the Old Testament, the Koran and Herodotus. He is just past the part where the Greeks rout the Persians in battle at sea.

It is early in Simonson's long day of words, dark outside, birds still tucked under wing. Soon, Simonson will visit the filthy toilet stalls of Ben Okri's urban Nigeria, the southern islands of Pablo Neruda's Chile, the mental hospitals in Patricia Chao's "Monkey King," the housing projects of Chicago writer Dawn Turner Trice.

He will lounge on a Caribbean cruise ship with novelist/essayist David Foster Wallace and then, late into an Australian night, eavesdrop on a conversation between a condemned man and his military executioner in David Malouf's new novel. In between chapters, Simonson will digest poems by Anne Carson and Rabindranath Tagore. He will chip, 12 pages a day, at a weighty tome by Milan Kundera.

Simonson reads about 20 books a month, early every morning, before driving his little Honda to the Elliott Bay Book Co. in Pioneer Square. He is chief book buyer there and the spirit behind the store's acclaimed reading series. This program of literary talks (usually one, and sometimes two or three a day) is the largest in the nation and among the most influential in the book world.

"It's a tremendous contribution not only to the Seattle area, but to all of American literature," says Gigi Bradford, literature director for the National Endowment for the Arts. "Books don't stop at state lines. Books go all over the place."

Last year, more than 600 writers from all over the United States and 23 countries came to Seattle as part of the series. Authors included Umberto Eco, Joan Didion, August Wilson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Bill Bradley and, notably, Salman Rushdie, in his most public U.S. reading since the Ayatollah Khomeini's 1989 fatwa urging followers to kill the author and those connected with his offending novel.

". . . with this book," Simonson told a hushed gathering of the Northwest book community, "readers finally, at last, seem to be going beyond hearing about Salman Rushdie to reading him - burrowing in and reaping the word . . ."

What's remarkable about that evening, more than a year later, is that those who were there talk as much about Simonson as they do about Rushdie. About Simonson's graceful introductions of writers - undiscovered Northwest poets as well as celebrity novelists - and about his tireless devotion to readers and books during the past 20 years at Elliott Bay.

From Dumpster to book shelf

Simonson began his literary life while hauling trash to an alley Dumpster one spring afternoon in 1973.

At that time, the bookseller recalls, he was sort of lurching around, sleeping on friends' couches, occasionally dipping into exhilarating courses at The Evergreen State College, working at restaurants to pay his way. His father was an insurance agent; his mother managed a doctor's office. Simonson had enrolled at the University of Washington after graduating from Shorecrest High School, but soon quit the UW so he'd have more time to read.

"It was a period when you were thinking a lot about the world, politically, socially," Simonson says. "Boeing had a big recession. People cut loose and started little businesses, taking on and doing things not seen as climbing some career ladder."

One of those people was Colorado-transplant Walter Carr, who had opened the alley door for cross-ventilation while knocking down walls in his soon-to-be bookstore in Pioneer Square.

"I sort of recall him with this empty garbage can," Carr says of Simonson. " He was bushy-headed, very young, could have been in high school. His enthusiasm is what struck me."

Carr hired Simonson to help with construction. That led to clerking, stocking, managing and eventually purchasing for what is now a 140,000-volume store at 101 S. Main Street. The place is a creaky wood-and-brick tree house of a building with all sorts of cozy book nooks and little balconies and plank-ladder stairs. Simonson's office is squirreled away at the top, three flights up, catalogs and loose galleys sliding off every horizontal surface, canvas tote bags and T-shirts stashed under desks, swing-arm lamps at odd angles, a smudged computer screen glowing amber.

At 43, Simonson is something of a squirrel himself, scampering down the stairs to greet drop-by authors, darting around displays to find titles for customers, his graying fringe tipped with auburn, his beard worn away where he constantly cups his palm against his cheek.

This morning, Simonson buys books from Oliver Gilliland, a longtime sales rep for W.W. Norton who has become an old friend. Their familiarity could explain the careening pace of the conversation, but actually, Simonson talks this way with just about everybody, sentences colliding before they are formed, thoughts swirling fast.

"French? Feminist satire . . ."

"Vanity Fair."

"They're bringing her over?"

" . . . Young shop girl . . . lingerie with a massage parlor, gets more and more voluptuous, starts growing thick hairs and extra sets of breasts . . . falls in love with a guy who turns out to be a pig and werewolf . . . She calls pizza delivery immediately . . . Pretty soon, pizza delivery cars parked illegally all over Paris. . . . "

"Mmm. Uh-huh. Say, like, 20."

"The Vamp!"

"Oui!"

And on and on. House-plant survival guide; he orders (1). Iran-Contra conspiracy expose (8). Boomer diet book (2). First novel by Northwest author (15).

"This guy I love," Simonson says of Agha Shagid Ali, a Kashmiri-American poet. "He's also translated Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the Neruda of the whole south of Asia."

Gilliland scribbles notes. He'll use Simonson's comments in his sales spiel at other stores.

Simonson is so respected among editors and publishers that his excitement about a book can spur a West Coast, if not national, book tour for an author who might otherwise get a skimpy promotion budget.

"He wields a lot of influence unwittingly because he's such a popular character in New York," says Los Angeles publicist Pam Henstell. "Sometimes I'm really embarrassed because he'll read the books ahead of me. . . . He knows what will work.

"The best booksellers are the ones with the real altruistic spirit. Non-entrepreneurial," she adds. "Rick gets really irritated if you call the next day after a book signing and ask how many books were sold because that's beside the point. He wants to bring people into the store to perform some kind of community service."

Taking calls from all over

Elliott Bay owner Walter Carr says he doesn't count beans when it comes to the reading series, calling the literary program "a financial challenge" that has nonmonetary rewards. (The store's book sales have declined over the past three years, even as the reading series has grown. This is likely due to competition from chain and online bookstores that have come to the area.)

Still, Simonson has picked several blockbusters among 3,000-plus readings in the past dozen years. He invited Amy Tan to read at Elliott Bay long before "The Joy Luck Club" hit it big. Same with Michael Ondaatje and "The English Patient." And Kazuo Ishiguro and "Remains of the Day." Simonson is ecstatic about Anne Michael's "Fugitive Pieces," a World War II novel set on a wind-swept Greek island, a Polish archaeological dig and in Toronto.

New York editors seek Simonson's opinion. National publishers send manuscripts. "If something comes in that I'm really excited about that I know has good quality, you want to share it immediately," says Sonny Mehta, president of Knopf publishing. "Who else can I pass it to? Who's going to be as excited about this as I am?. . . . Rick is on that list. He reads the book as well as any of the colleagues I have in New York, so I have the highest respect for him . . . In our beleaguered business, we need many clones of Rick."

Eleven people leave phone messages in the hour Simonson and Gilliland pore over book catalogs. West Coast promoters. Stray poets. Spokane writer Sherman Alexie with tickets to the Sonics.

"He's seen as an incredibly dedicated and thoughtful bookseller who can kind of bridge the editorial and publishing and book-selling communities," says Alane Mason, of Knopf, who edited David Guterson's novel, "Snow Falling on Cedars."

Mason was with Harcourt then, suffering from survivor's guilt in a New York publishing house that had just laid off several colleagues. Over the phone, Simonson listened to her talk about wanting to take a long trip, maybe to Turkey, and realized she needed to have lunch with someone closer than 3,000 miles across the country. So he gave her the telephone number of a New York paperback editor who had traveled the Middle East. Mason brought galleys of "Snow Falling on Cedars" to the restaurant, the paperback editor loved it, bought rights, millions of copies have since sold.

Which says a little about publishing and a lot about Simonson's character. His appreciation of good books and his compassion for good friends are inseparably linked. Together, they make him one of the nation's most beloved, revered and powerful booksellers, a position that strangely, has almost nothing to do with the commercial sale of books.

Finding wealth in words

There are novels double-stacked in the alcove where the ironing board is supposed to fold up, oversize art books in the living room, volumes of poetry in the study, '60s books by the woodstove, rows of history, philosophy and fiction in the basement, baseball and basketball annuals from 1967 next to the dryer, murder mysteries on the window seat, a parade of pocket-size foreign-language dictionaries on the top shelf of the bathroom medicine cabinet.

Books dominate the home, and the life, Simonson shares with his wife, artist Barbara Thomas. They count words and ideas as wealth.

"So much that is so rich comes my way," the bookseller said a few years ago, when he was honored at Washington state's annual Governor's Writers Awards ceremony. ". . . It's all I often feel I can do to help replant, repour, redirect, this richness."

In life, as opposed to an acceptance speech, the realization of this ideal is somewhat more chaotic. Late on Valentine's night, Simonson leaves a garbled message on my answering machine: Sorry about not calling earlier . . . an impromptu book-signing with novelist John Irving, a children's event in the store, former Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham in town for a talk with Michael Kinsley . . . and it's book-buying season. . . .

How does Simonson do all he does? He credits the book store's 40 staffers, their dedication, their support, the work of other people in the city. He does not mention that he regularly gets only four hours sleep, though he prefers five or six. He does not boast of his own amazing memory, which his wife refers to as his "archival gene." Simonson can recall telephone numbers he dialed only once, years ago. The same applies to book titles, authors, agents, editors, publishing gossip, references to text. "He's like a literary Rolodex," says author Jonathan Raban.

Why Simonson does what he does is another matter. There was never any grand plan. He talks about missing good conversation after he graduated from Evergreen. He talks about attending "The Conference on the Great Mother and New Father," an annual summer camp in the woods where adults gab about poetry, mythology and psychology.

Last year, when former Knicks star and U.S. senator Bill Bradley came to town to read from newly published memoirs, Simonson introduced him to the crowd, and told of a small significant moment, long ago.

Simonson was 14, a ball boy for the Sonics, huddling over a book near the locker room. Basketball star Bradley walked by, stopped to ask what he was reading? Had he ever been to the Okanogan Valley? What did he think of Pike Place Market?

"It was this very low-key acknowledgment of me as a person at a time when you're freaked out you'll totally stand out like a sore thumb and at the same time you're sure nobody will ever notice you in your whole life."

Conversation means a lot to Simonson.

The intention of the reading series, Simonson once wrote, "is to have a place where talk that hasn't had much place in our public has something of that chance. The talk that is powerful poetry or fine fiction, the talk that is thoughtful memoir, historical account, social, or political analysis - and the listening then the further talk . . . the nights when we all breathe as one or laughter rides an infectious current - all of this has its basis in long-standing, everyday, human life - if not in our often hell-bent present time, then in our past."

A room comes alive

Now it is night in the brick basement of Elliott Bay Book Co., exposed pipes zig-zagging across the ceiling, a crowd that's dressed as if it's about to go camping, Simonson in jeans on the sidelines, setting up chairs for late comers.

Off-the-cuff, he introduces the evening's author, David Abram, an environmental philosopher and sleight-of-hand magician who recently moved to Vashon Island. Simonson talks about reading Abram's book on Vancouver Island and feeling as if the author was two trees away. "Profound," Simonson says of the book. "Reviewers haven't caught up."

For the next hour, Abram tells about sorcerers in Indonesia and Nepal, about interacting with anthills and storm clouds, about the power and magic of words. Afterward, a man in a flannel shirt asks, "Who's the we? Who is really lost?" A woman in cork clogs asks, "What does this mean for our future?" Time is circular, Abram replies, like space.

The room gurgles with conversation, people slouched together, Gore-tex outerwear slithering to the floor as they chat.

Simonson roams among the readers, nabbing books, moving tables, readying the room for more talk, tomorrow.

Published Correction Date: 03/10/97 - The Name Of Former Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham Was Misspelled In This Article.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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