Kalani Kapahua with his newborn at Ravenna Third Place Books. Courtesy photo.

In a city of bibliophiles, Kalani Kapahua has earned himself a professional niche many of us could only dream of.   

He’s going on three and a half years as the general manager of Ravenna Third Place Books and he spends 40 hours a week surrounded by books and book lovers in the independent new and used bookstore.  

Ravenna Third Place Books is tucked away in a predominantly residential corner of the Ravenna neighborhood. It’s a 3,500-square foot paradise of the printed word, selling an average of 10-15,000 books per month to its loyal customer base and beyond.  

Kapahua leads the bookstore’s day-to-day operations – training and managing staff, overseeing the ordering process of new books and used book department — and he has a hand in special events and author readings. 

“You definitely have to do a little of everything always and have to be in tune with everything that’s going on,” he said. “You never know what’s going to come up on a daily basis.” 

The “a-ha!” moment 

Kapahua has always been drawn to the written word. He got his first taste of writing and journalism when he was a student at Shoreline High School, writing for the high school paper. He was good at it, and he received a lot of encouragement from his teachers to pursue journalism.  

“I thought that was what I was going to major in in college. For a while, it was my major in college,” he said.  

But journalism does have a certain structure to it that can stifle some. And Kapahua was attending college in 2010-2013, a time when the popular wisdom was that newspapers and news outlets were going to continue to struggle in the internet age. He decided to switch his focus and major from journalism to creating writing.  

“That was a world that I was very engaged with,” he said.  

And it was the first calling that moved him closer to being a professional bookseller.  

Kapahua graduated from Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, with a double major in creative writing and urban studies. He moved back to Seattle, and within a month got a job in commercial real estate appraising. It felt like a pragmatic combination of both his majors. He had to write long, detailed reports and understand basic city planning and zoning codes.  

But the writing he was doing was formulaic. And he wasn’t feeling the real estate vibe. “And the money side of things, I have no knowledge of,” he said.   

In 2014, he was a year deep into the daily grind when he heard that the annual Association of Writing and Writing Programs conference, the AWP, was to be held in Seattle that year.  

The AWP calls itself “the annual destination for writers, teachers, students, editors, and publishers of contemporary creative writing.” It’s a four-day literary bonanza of writing and reading ambitions featuring hundreds of special events, speakers and exhibitors.  

Kapahua’s creative writing and love of reading itch acted up a bit at this news. He used a week’s worth of vacation time to take time off work and attend.  

There were thousands in attendance at the event at the Convention Center. He went for four days straight and was hooked. 

I had that ‘a-ha’ moment at the AWP conference, looking at all these people who are working in the book world, making it happen,” Kapahua said. “It really just came to me, this is the world I want to be in. Just however I could get into his world of writing, books, writing programs. So I searched for jobs, and I took the first one that made sense.” 

Taking the leap into life as a full-time bookseller 

Kapahua said goodbye to his appraising job and accepted what started out as a part-time job at the Lake Forest Park Third Place Books planning author event programming. He soon came on full time and stayed for six and a half years at that branch. 

Then Michael Coy, long-time manager of the Ravenna Third Place Books, announced he was retiring, and Kapahua earned the role of manager at this location in 2020.  

Yes, that 2020.  

Kapahua took on the role of the manager of Ravenna Third Place Books during the first chaotic year of the pandemic when all of life was based on constant uncertainty, lockdown, and fear of an unknown virus. Businesses were forced to go into a daily state of transition and adaptation in order to keep the lights on.  

“It was pretty wild,” Kapahua said. The store pulled through by moving all their sales online, with a team of staff working at home processing internet orders with distributors who would then send the books directly to customers’ homes.  

“That’s all we did for eight hours a day,” he said — processing online orders. Third Place Books had always taken online orders, but it was a pretty small percentage of their sales. During quarantine, their only sales were online. 

“We learned as we were doing it because we were getting inundated with hundreds of orders, which was a good problem to have,” he admitted. 

In Kapahua’s opinion and experience, the pandemic and its impact on threatening small businesses actually helped them as an independent bookstore because they had a strong, loyal customer base.  

It became a priority for people to be like, ‘yeah, the small indie bookstores need our attention.’ So I think there was a more pointed movement to not buy everything on Amazon, to support the community bookstore. And we certainly did reap the benefits of some of that.” 

Prioritizing diversity in the national bookseller landscape 

Last year, Kapahua was nominated to serve on the American Booksellers Association (ABA) Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council, serving with 11 other booksellers throughout the country. As a committee, they meet on Zoom and work directly with the ABA conference planners to address challenges and goals within the national bookselling community regarding how to ensure equitable representation. 

Being in Seattle, we do see a little bit more of the melting pot,” Kapahua said in how his experience shapes his contribution to the council. And he’s representative of that melting pot himself. He’s a Korean adoptee. His adoptive father was Native Hawaiian. His adoptive mom is from Marysville, WA, but lived in Honolulu for years.  

“Having representation is certainly something I think about a lot and it’s very top of mind for a lot of people on staff – what books get faced out what books get promoted space, what books we’re all reading and recommending, some of the authors we have speaking,” Kapahua said. 

“There’s definitely an effort to be a little more mindful about the whole subject. It’s something I’ve been trying to think about and be more deliberate with because I know there’s a lot we can do to be better.” 

He said he’s excited to start seeing more diversity and more intention to address diversity within the bookselling community nationally and cited the rise of dedicated Asian American bookstores, including Seattle’s independent bookstore mam’s books, which opened last fall in Chinatown-International District. 

“There’s been a much more transparent push for representation and Asian voices,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of Asian voices emerge now.” 

Third Place Books has more than pulled through the age of COVID with Kapahua at the helm, and even grown post pandemic, he said. Customers are back to their habitual grazing in the store through colorful aisles of titles and favorite authors and genres at leisure, grateful to support the success of one of the city’s many iconic independent bookstores.  

Kapahua reflected back on that a-ha moment he had at the first AWP conference he attended 10 years ago, and how it steered him toward his love of reading, writing and becoming a bookseller. “I didn’t know how viable an option that would be at that time. Especially in college, they tell you it’s never lucrative and there are few job opportunities. But I found a little pocket within the bookselling world.” 

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