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Hi Neighbor! Meet Tom Nissley of Phinney Books

PhinneyWood is full of wonderful people and great places that we all wish we knew more about. Resident Kevin Kozel periodically digs deeper to let us know more in a column we like to call … Hi Neighbor!

When PhinneyWood’s neighborhood bookstore, Santoro’s, chose not to renew their lease after nine years, the opportunity presented itself for one if its long-time residents. Author and avid reader Tom Nissley never planned on owning a bookstore, but after a little research the timing seemed right. Five years later, Phinney Books now fills the need for local readers and continues to expand its reach beyond the PhinneyWood community.

Kevin Kozel (KK): What made you decide to open a book store in PhinneyWood?

Tom Nissley (TM): It’s the only place I could imagine having one. I got an email from a friend who’s a real estate agent in the neighborhood that Santoro’s was for sale. My first reaction was, “That’s a crazy business, I don’t want to own a book store.” But I decided to look into it because it was the right time in my life. The more I looked into it, the more feasible it sounded.

KK: Book stores haven’t had the most positive outlook over the past 10-15 years, but that’s not the case for Phinney Books, is it?

TM: Things did look pretty rough for bookstores 10-15 years ago, but the last five years we’ve seen things swing back our way a bit. I think people just really like books and book stores. I worked at Amazon when the Kindle came out and a lot of folks really thought that there would be no physical books in five to ten years. But there’s something about a book that’s different… it’s a different machine.

KK: How does Phinney Books differentiate itself from an Amazon?

TM: There’s kind of an irony that Seattle might be the best book store town in the country and it’s also the home of Amazon. We’ve adjusted to Amazon and eBooks. The people who come in here are already educated consumers and they know they want to support a book store and they’re willing to pay a little more for the convenience or to have a store in their neighborhood. We’ve seen it all over Seattle and I think we’re starting to see it more across the country too.

KK: And the big chains have struggled while the independent book stores have found some success…

TM: Yeah. Borders closed and everyone knows that Barnes and Noble is having a hard time. I don’t think they offer much that Amazon doesn’t. Shoppers want a place where people will know them and that isn’t overwhelming. I think people like a place like this, small where someone has chosen what is here.

KK: Sure, you offer specialized knowledge that you don’t get in the stores that are just trying to carry everything.

TM: And those large stores had book sellers that really knew their stuff too, and they eventually moved away from that expertise.

KK: What has surprised you about owning a book store?

TM: I’ve been able to sell books that I find interesting, more than I thought I would. The selection has gotten more idiosyncratic over time because I’ve become more confident that I can actually sell them.

KK: Do you think people’s reading habits have changed because of internet access, cell phones, and other technology?

TM: Yes, I think one reason people come to books is to get a break from screens. You can relax without things jumping out at you or alerts.

KK: You also send out a weekly email newsletter. How many people do you send it to?

MM: Close to 2,000 and half of them actually open it, which I think is pretty good. The newsletter is very similar to what I did at Amazon, so it was the one thing I knew I could do. I’d never operated a cash register before, but I knew I could write about books for people.

KK: Tell me about your great window displays, you always have some sort of theme. What was the inspiration behind that?

TM: That’s the thing I hear about the store the most. A lot of it is one of our employees, Kim Kopetz. She loves it. When we opened I wasn’t really as imaginative about it. Now it’s a way for us to talk to you through books. It’s not all about the “new stuff.”

KK: You recently opened a second store in Madison Park. What led you to that location?

TM: It’s a very similar neighborhood in some ways. I don’t think I would ever consider opening a store in a place that didn’t have that kind of pedestrian center to it. Like PhinneyWood, it’s the kind of neighborhood where people can walk down the street and get pretty much anything they need.

KK: What role has the PNA played in our community?

TM: I think the presence of the PNA helps make us think of ourselves as a neighborhood in a way that others don’t. No other neighborhood really has that strong   community association that does so many things.

KK: We can’t end this interview without mentioning one of your other claims to fame, your time on “Jeopardy.” How many times were you on?

TM: I won 8 times and I’ve been back for a couple of tournaments. I think 14 times.

KK: Do you still watch regularly?

TM: I record it every night. Now that I’m pretty sure they’re never going to ask me back I’ve been happy to not watch every night. I can relax a little.

KK: You and fellow PhinneyWood “Jeopardy” champion Ken Jennings are doing Trivia Night again this year, right?

TM: Yeah, this is the fourth or fifth year we’ve done it. It gets bigger every year. It’s tough to win, but it’s fun!

Phinney Books can be found at 7405 Greenwood Avenue and Madison Books at 4118 East Madison Street. Stop in for all of your reading needs or check out their window displays at the very least.

Also, be sure to sign up for “Jeopardy” Winners Trivia Night on Saturday, June 22, at the PNA.

Any person, place, or thing you want to know more about in our neighborhood? Feel free to drop us a line or leave a comment and we’ll look into making it a future feature on Hi Neighbor!