If you thought about the typical characteristics of an independent bookstore owner, you probably wouldn’t guess that they used to work for the biggest, and most frequently controversial online bookseller on the planet. But that’s exactly the case for Phinney Books in Seattle’s Greenwood/Phinney Ridge neighborhoods and its owner, Tom Nissley.
I first heard about Nissley in a New York Times article on Seattle’s independent bookstore scene published last April. The article, “Bookstores in Seattle Soar, and Embrace an Old Nemesis: Amazon.com,” featured one of the city’s biggest independent bookstores, Elliott Bay Book Company. The manager, Tracy Taylor, reported that the bookstore earned its biggest profit in 20 years in 2013 and revealed that many of their customers are Amazon employees. Nissley was one of those employees.
He worked as a books editor at Amazon for ten years, and during that time many of his lunch breaks were spent at Elliott Bay. In 2010 he also auditioned for the game show, Jeopardy!, ultimately making it on the show and becoming an eight-time champion. His winnings allowed him to quit his job at Amazon and focus on his writing career. In November of 2013 he published A Reader’s Book of Days, a unique compilation of stories for every day of the year about famous authors, as well as famous fictional events, with W. W. Norton & Company.
A few months later his neighborhood bookstore, Santoro’s Books, was up for sale, and Nissley considered owning a bookstore for the first time. He looked to other booksellers in Seattle for advice, and, to his surprise, they said the last couple of years were some of their most profitable. Ultimately, Nissley and his wife, Laura Silverstein, decided to buy Santoro’s Books and on June 20, 2014 they re-opened it as Phinney Books.
After I moved to Seattle a few months ago, I wanted to know—did Seattle’s bookstores really embrace Amazon? I decided to visit Phinney Books and asked Nissley about his new bookstore, his Jeopardy! run, Amazon, and the New York Times piece he was featured in.
“I think [The New York Times] wanted a little bit of a contrarian spin,” he said. “Believe me, the people the reporter talked to usually do not speak well of Amazon but I think in the context of their conversation, [the booksellers] were being polite,” he quipped.
Overall, Nissley said his experience at Amazon has made him less fearful of the world’s biggest bookstore. He knows what Amazon does well and where they fall short. “The people that come here to buy books don’t want Amazon,” he said. They want to come into a physical space, pick up beautiful books, browse, and talk to me about what they might like. I don’t need to be Amazon.”
For more from Nissley on his journey, and life as an independent bookseller with Amazon in your backyard, check out the video, below.