In August, Karen Maeda Allman retired from a 23-year career at the Elliott Bay Book Company, but she’ll never be far from books. Her passion for books is evident not only in her to-read list, but also in her future book-oriented plans.

Allman came to the world of bookstores by a circuitous route. “Some of my earliest memories are of reading books out loud to my parents,” she said, “and though my parents and I were always reading everything all the time, we were more library users than book buyers.

But then Allman moved to Seattle to attend graduate school. “I realized that I needed to meet some more people, so I joined the Red and Black Bookstore Collective, a feminist, multicultural, as we called it then, bookstore run by volunteers and some paid workers,” she recalled. “I stayed with Red and Black until it closed in 1999, and what I learned there has informed everything I’ve done since then.

It was in 1999 that Allman jumped to Elliott Bay Book Company as a bookseller and event coordinator. “Elliott Bay’s general manager and now bookstore owner Tracy Taylor estimates that I’ve been involved with over 10,000 author events over the years,” Allman said, “which makes my head spin.

Many of Elliott Bay’s events occurred in partnership with other community organizations. One of my recent favorites was a wonderful event with Kazuo Ishiguro, co-presented with the Seattle Public Library.,” Allman relayed. “This was shortly before he was awarded the Nobel Prize, when he was on tour with his book, The Buried Giant, and he appeared in conversation with my longtime bookstore colleague, Rick Simonson.”

But then Allman was graced with another opportunity to host this esteemed author. “Last year we co-hosted a Zoom conversation with Mr. Ishiguro, who appeared in conversation with novelist Ruth Ozeki during his virtual tour for Klara and the Sun,” she said. “It was wonderful to hear a conversation between two of my favorite writers of Japanese descent with such different backgrounds and perspectives.”

The variety of authors with whom Allman has worked can’t be overstated, including Chang-Rae Lee, Isabel Wilkerson, Sandra Cisneros, and Japanese author, Yoko Tawada. “Japanese mystery writer Natsuo Kirino, author of Out, visited us as well, and all everyone wanted to talk about was the alternate ending of her book, Grotesque, which was changed for the English edition,” Allman recounted. “I think this may have been an event in which some audience members shouted out their own improved translations during the Q&A.”

Allman also fondly remembers events featuring school-age children who shared their writing with the public. “This was many of the young writers’ first experience reading in public and each group went up on the stage with the others from their school, moving closer together if one of the solo readers was too scared to read at first,” she said. “Some read poems in unison, in a group.”

More challenging experiences occurred when customers would ask about the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans and claim to have never learned about this part of Seattle’s local history. This has happened less and less over the years, as people are more aware, at least in Seattle,” Allman said. “I was always glad that we had good books on this topic and that Densho exists as a resource.

Allman is also pleased that Elliott Bay has a large representation of Korean writers. “When I was starting out in bookselling at Red and Black in the late 1980s, we might have one or two books, and customers would be so happy to see the books, they’d sometimes start to cry,” she remembered. “Now we have books by authors such as EJ Koh, Min Jin Lee, Grace Cho, Nicole Chung, translator Takami Nieda and many other writers, but there are many more stories to tell.

Helping customers expand their viewpoints has been one of Allman’s biggest satisfactions. Just before the pandemic, I helped a vacationing customer find books, and a national support organization, that would help her support her transgender child,” Allman said. “She was so happy that a regular bookstore would have book displays and books that welcomed and affirmed her family, as this was not the case where she lived.

Allman considers her role to be creating awareness among Asian Americans and people of color in general. “Sometimes people in publishing and bookselling have just assumed that we don’t read and buy books or that interest in our books is limited to only the people from our particular racial and ethnic backgrounds,” she observed. “Bookstores like ours, and libraries, have proved that there’s a wide audience for these books, but people can’t buy what they don’t know about.

So she tried to push beyond a sense that interest in such books is only cyclical. “We experienced a peak of interest in terms of publishing and reviewing of these books in the 1990s and another recently, but we shouldn’t take this for granted,” she said. “If these books don’t sell, there’s less incentive to publish more. I believe that community support of bookstores, and bookstore support of our communities, is crucial to supporting writers.

During her retirement, Allman plans to support countless writers, and her future reading list includes Year of the Tiger: An Activist’s Life by Alice Wong, A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo, Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah, and Spirits of San Francisco by Gary Kamiya and Paul Madonna.

And that’s only the beginning. “I rarely re-read books, but I’ll be re-reading Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson, as she’ll appear in Seattle as part of the 2022-2023 Seattle Arts and Lectures series,” Allman said. “In Caste, Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, makes the case that racial hierarchies function as a sort of caste system.”

But Allman won’t just be lounging in her reading chair. “I’ll be serving as a judge on the Fiction Panel for this year’s CLMP Firecracker Awards for Independently Published Literature and I’ve joined the board of Seattle Arts and Lectures,” she shared. “I’m looking forward to more involvement with other local organizations, including with Densho and the Seattle Public Library.

That’s because working at Elliott Bay has meant much more than selling books and hosting events. “Over time you can develop trust and find some common ground, and I’ve always thought this was important,” Allman said. “It’s important to just listen sometimes.

Previous articleSeptember 22, 2022–Arts Etc.
Next articleWing Luke Museum hosts Multiversal Magical House Party