Squat and square and khaki in color, King’s Books is one of the many turn-of-the-century buildings that calls Tacoma’s historic Stadium District home. Inside, shelves upon shelves of books run the length of this quaint independent bookstore, and a broad walkway offers room for several avid readers to walk abreast. Prints from local artists and an assortment of clever and bookish knick-knacks are arranged pertly throughout the store. At first glance, King’s is just your average, run-of-the-mill new and used bookstore.
Meander from row to row, however, or thumb through a stack of books and you’ll notice something a little different about the staff. For 15 years and counting, patrons have delivered reports of one or more diminutive book seller’s approaching on all fours to weigh in — indifferently, of course — about their selections. These two full-time staff members — Herbert and Atticus — happen to be cats.
A fixture at King’s Books, the feline employees have been around even longer than the store’s current owner, sweet pea Flaherty. The jet-black and regal Atticus has a legitimate fan following and a reputation that’s as sterling and remarkable as the bookstore that he calls home. Described as the reigning monarch of King’s, Atticus and company live year-round in the book shop. The most recent addition to the bookstore-cat pedigree, Herbert, is a sturdy tabby with a cookies-and-cream coat who has a penchant for lolling around and cozying up on the comfiest chairs when he’s not greeting customers at the door.
The owner of King’s Books has a personality as distinctive as his lowercased first name. (That’s right: Mr. Flaherty’s legal name is sweet pea. He was christened with this pet name in secondary-school, but the pseudonym stuck around long after graduation and is now a legitimate proper noun.) With his distinctive and manicured vintage ensembles and the type of plucky energy you would expect from the ringleader of a mellow literary circus, sweet pea is often credited with curating the eclectic atmosphere of King’s Books. A lover of cats, good books and kung fu, Tacoma’s most iconic fixture in the South Sound literary scene is a Wisconsin import that now calls the Gritty City home.
Madison, Wisconsin is where this ambitious small business owner most recently hails from. Much like the tomcats he fosters, sweet pea prowled around the Midwest growing up before he finally landed in Tacoma more than a decade ago. Today he is an extraordinary event coordinator and the sole proprietor of an indie bookstore that ranks frequently among the most beloved bookstores in all of Western Washington.
While he’s damn good at it, sweet pea says that he didn’t always dream of one day owning his own bookstore. However, there came a point where he realized that it was just destined to be. He breaks down the chronology of his journey as follows:
“The previous owners, Pat (McDermott) and John (Schoppert), were together at Powell’s Books in Portland. One moved to Madison, Wisconsin, in the mid-90s, and at the time, I started working at that store as well as another feminist bookstore in the same area. Then one of the owners, John, moved to Tacoma to start King’s Books in 2000. That was around in a much smaller space for about three or so years, and then we moved the bookstore from Wisconsin to Tacoma to combine forces in the summer of 2003, and in that way I was imported. And then in 2010, I took over the bookstore at the end of the year from the previous owners.”
“I grew up in bookstores and libraries,” sweet pea continues, “and I always wanted to work in one. It wasn’t until I moved out here and someone was like, ‘You should go to one of the regional bookselling conventions,’ that I really started to consider it. I went to that year’s conference just to go to the conference, and I slowly realized, ‘Oh, I’m actually a bookseller.’ When the previous owners decided that they were done, it just sort of made sense to take over the bookstore.”
The once-industrial space that sweet pea took the helm of in 2010 is now rife with erudite charm, and he has done nothing but improve upon its substance since taking over. The store houses roughly 150,000 books, all stacked on rolling shelves that are often rearranged to accommodate lively discussions, readings and workshops.
King’s Books offers nearly as many events open to the public as there are books on the shelves. Inside the shop, a wide-open walkway bisects the floor and becomes an ideal staging area for the myriad of events that King’s Books offers several times a month and dozens of times a year.
For the social reader, there are six book clubs to choose from that meet monthly to discuss genre-specific readings. For the more bashful literati, there are poetry readings held frequently that give equal time to new and established authors alike. For the movie-loving reader, the bookstore currently offers a fun partnership with Grand Cinema. King’s carries an array of titles that reflect current and upcoming films based on books that are or will be showing soon at the Grand. Patrons can present their ticket stub from this theater for local, foreign and indie films for a 15 percent discount on the price of the book.
The incredible events that sweet pea organizes and markets creatively have pushed King’s Books to the forefront of Tacoma’s cultural landscape. Annual all-day events such as the Artist Craft Fair and the Wayzgoose Letterpress and Book Arts Extravaganza (coming up again April 30 and May 1, 2016) invigorate the local economy and creative community. King’s Books also enjoys great relationships with Tacoma proper and Pierce County libraries, where sweet pea can often be found hawking tomes and collaborating with the inquisitive young adult set. Large- and small-scale events like these, sweet pea says, are the key to keeping this independent bookstore fresh and making books an immersive experience.
Book signings, a common occurrence at just about any bookstore, take on a dynamic life of their own at King’s. “Sometimes I’ll get approached by authors who want to do a signing, and my approach is, ‘Cool! What are you going to bring?’ We want to do something that’s interesting. When we had a book party for Tacoma’s Marissa Meyer (“Cinder and Scarlet”), I had the SOTA Robotics Team come because these stories are sort of futuristic fairy tales and we had write@253 come where people started fairy tales and people would write a few sentences and pass it on to become this wild, convoluted collaborative tale. We’ve had a bunch of fun things like a makeover and karate demonstrations. But I’m always looking for a way to spin it because, to have a book-related event, when people don’t know who you are, how can we get readers excited about our guest speakers?”
“All of the events have grown in partnership with local businesses, smaller and national publishers,” sweet pea says. “It’s all collaborative, and it’s a lot of work but that’s what gets people in and gets people excited, and even if they miss it they’ll come in and say, ‘I heard you had this event,’ and, you know, word gets around.”
For readers who can’t wait for the next big event at King’s to get involved and meet the Kitty Collective, the store offers a great gift for book lovers that serves as a great excuse to stop by any time: the Vehement Vassals membership. Avid readers can purchase a $25 annual membership and receive a 10 percent discount on all purchases all year long. Put this discount toward one of the rare books on offer here or snag an off-beat journal or tee outfitted with artwork from outstanding local artists.
So if you’re prowling for a place to meet new people who love books as much as you do, get your literary kicks at King’s Books. Between the amicable bookstore cats, the amazing staff and the charming location, it’s not hard to see why King’s is one of Tacoma’s most venerable institutions
218 St Helens Ave.
Tacoma, WA 98402