For nearly 40 consecutive years, the sunny storefront of 7 Mercer Street has housed women-owned bookstores. Titlewave Books – said to have been playwright August Wilson’s favorite bookstore in Seattle – graced the address for more than two decades before closing in 2004. Jamie Lutton later turned the space into an outpost of his bookstore chain Twice Sold Tales for five years.
In 2009, Debbie Sarow took over the storefront and turned it into a second-hand bookstore named Mercer Street Books. Sarow, a veteran of Twice Sold Tales and Pioneer Square antiquarian bookseller Wessel & Lieberman, imbued every inch of the shop with her meticulous, thoughtful charm. With its tall, glowing umber shelves and whimsical decorations, including an antique chandelier telephone, Mercer Street Books is nothing like the grand antique shops of Paris and London – a touch of European majesty right next to the Seattle Center in the Uptown neighborhood.
Sarow believed that a good bookstore was like a party, and she shaped Mercer Street Books to match that philosophy, welcoming neighbors and tourists from nearby Seattle Center into the store’s orbit. Her boutique gathered a growing and loyal clientele who appreciated her warmth, singular beauty, and scrupulously curated selection of titles.
In 2016, after being diagnosed with cancer, Sarow searched for someone who could help run Mercer Street Books. She hired Jessica Hurst, a longtime Seattle bookseller. Hurst, a veteran of Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, had worked at second-hand bookseller Lamplight Books in Pike Place Market since 2014, and Sarow struck a deal with Lamplight owner Joe Fridlund in which Hurst would split his time between both stores.
“Lamplight was an amazing place to work,” says Hurst. “But it’s true that Joe and Debbie’s stores couldn’t have been more different.” For example, “Lamplight’s new arrivals area is literally a waist-deep pile of books outside its door”, while customers entering Mercer Street Books for the first time often refuse to believe the store, with its “perfect order and its perfect conservation”. is a second-hand bookstore.
Sarow’s health improved and she began planning a trip around the world with her partner. Hurst joined Mercer Street Books full-time with the intention of running the shop while Sarow traveled the world. But even Seattle’s biggest bookstore organizer couldn’t fully prepare for what happened next.
“Debbie had always said she would go to Paris if she was diagnosed terminally ill with this cancer,” Hurst recalled. “And then she got a call one day when we were both in the store. She grabbed my arm and dragged me to the office and told me she was going to Paris on Wednesday .
Hurst remembers the rest of that conversation as a blur: Sarow told him that “she needed me to run the shop, and she wanted to know how I felt about buying her, and she cared a lot about me, and goodbye.”
“And then I never saw her again, conscious,” Hurst said.
Sarow flew to Paris and died in August 2018. Hurst officially purchased Mercer Street Books from Sarow’s partner in 2020.
“Debbie was a great boss. She was very communicative and it was just a pleasure to be with her, while being very precise. It was like watching an artist work,” says Hurst. “When I took over the bookstore, my desire was above all to serve him and preserve his vision.”
Those who know Sarow say she would be pleased with the work Hurst did at Mercer Street Books. It’s still the same gorgeous space, with bustling sprays of plants framing an immaculate selection of quality second-hand books. The library card catalogs at the front of the store are always filled with small items just waiting to be discovered and purchased by curious customers: stationery, old tools, mini-comics and postcards illustrated by the former Mercer Street bookseller and children’s book author Aaron Bagley.
Hurst says a large community of international tourists make it a point to visit Mercer Street Books whenever they come to town, and Uptown is fiercely loyal to the store. “I greet half the people who walk through the door by name,” Hurst says. “We host DJ KEXP, people on break from Dick’s Drive-In, volunteers from SIFF Uptown, players from the Seattle Storm” and world-famous visiting actors when they come to the Seattle Repertory Theater.
But Hurst still meets Seattleites who have never heard of Mercer Street Books. “It’s a little weird,” she thinks. “We are known all over the world, but we are not so well known in the city.”
Yet even though Hurst still adheres to Sarow’s strict no-social-media policy – the store website is just as stripped down today as it was under Sarow’s watch – the word is still spreading. Hurst says July was Mercer Street Books’ second-busiest month in terms of sales.
The party Sarow started still goes on every day, and Hurst and his two employees are dedicated to buying and stocking the best used books to keep the conversation going. “I have clients who would like each other’s company that I don’t know how to present,” Hurst says. “One of them always sells me the books the other buys. It’s this network of people who don’t know each other at all.“
Ultimately, she says, “that’s what a second-hand bookstore is: a silent community.”
What do Mercer Street Books customers read?
Jessica Hurst, owner of Mercer Street Books, says the Uptown community has changed during the pandemic. “The neighborhood has become younger and more diverse,” she says. So of course, the store’s stock changed with its clientele.
The children’s section of Mercer Street Books – already excellent before the pandemic – has become even more dynamic. “And we’re seeing a lot of current fiction for every demographic you can imagine,” Hurst says — especially “queer novels and great novels for black people.”
Since the store is within a few blocks of some of the city’s biggest arts organizations, Mercer Street Books has developed several excellent arts sections. “With SIFF Cinema so close, we have a spectacular film section. Being so close to the arena, we have a very strong music section. There are several theaters in Seattle Center and we have a very good section for theater and theater biographies,” says Hurst.
And while it prides itself on its selection of used books, Mercer Street Books always has exactly one new title in stock. In 2019, Mercer Street bookseller Gina Siciliano published “I know what I am,” his comic biography of Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, with Seattle comics publisher Fantagraphics. The beautifully illustrated comic recontextualizes the life and work of Gentileschi, who struggled to be accepted as a pioneering female artist in 17th-century Rome. Copies of the book are still available at the front of the store.
“Two years later, it’s in its third edition and still flying off the shelf,” says Hurst.