Summer Robinson is the proprietor of Seattle’s smallest bookstore, Pilot Books, a 300-square-foot, beige-carpeted living room of a space upstairs from Hana Restaurant on Broadway. There are no titles from The New York Times’ best-seller list and no Penguin Classics, just a carefully curated selection of experimental poetry, fiction, graphic novels, and foreign-language and cross-genre texts, all published in the past 10 years, all by independent presses.
“There was a time when I could have said that I had read all of them,” Robinson remarks of her growing inventory. “And then there was a time when I could have said I had read some of all of them. Now I know something about all of them.”
Robinson’s first foray into bookselling was a single shelf within Spencer Moody’s Capitol Hill art/home shop, the Anne Bonny. Inspired by the small-press section at Powell’s in Portland, Robinson thought Seattle needed something similar. When the Anne Bonny moved just over a year ago, she found a cheap, small space of her own. The Anne Bonny is shutting down this week, but Pilot Books lives on. Where once Robinson had sparsely filled, handmade suspension shelves and all the books facing out, now there are floor-to-ceiling IKEA shelves packed to bursting.
“From day one the store has been paying its own rent, which is very exciting for any business,” she says. But maximizing revenue is hardly the main thrust at Pilot. The shop offers free writing workshops every Monday night at 6 p.m., led by one of its regular attendees, as well as a reading series, organized by Will Owen. In March, Robinson presented a reading a day in a self-styled small-press bookfest. This summer, Pilot launched a mini-residency program, offering writers a chance to work in the shop and get paid to write (when they’re not serving customers).
“We had seven spots and over 70 applicants,” says Robinson. She’s now going to expand the program year-round, and will publish a chapbook called Financials, a collection of work produced onsite.
Robinson enjoys tapping the talents of those around her. She can’t and doesn’t want to do it all, and is gracious about sharing the stage and being in the audience at her own store’s events. She’s a writer, too, and if you stop by for a Monday workshop, you’ll likely see her with a notebook.
Pilot Books is the physical embodiment of one woman’s vision, which includes not only finely written books but also an appreciation for the beauty of well-printed text, the pleasure of touching high-quality paper, and the process of choosing a book by look and feel. In a city high on the Kindle, she’s cultivating a sensual appreciation for literary objects—and supporting small publishers and lesser-known authors in the process.
Only a handful of bookstores in the country do what Robinson’s does, says Kevin Sampsell, who oversees the Powell’s section that inspired Robinson and runs his own press, Future Tense Books. “In most cases, books from small presses, especially literary small presses, are ignored. Pilot Books gives ambitious readers and publishers hope.”