You have to admire the chutzpah of Seattle entrepreneur David Brewster and his latest notion – an athenaeum in the heart of the city of Amazon.
Not only does it cock a snook at digitization of the printed word, it’s housed just a block away from the city’s acclaimed public library, home to nearly 1.5m books.
What on earth is he thinking? There hasn’t been a new athenaeum in the US since 1899 and it’s little wonder. Why would anyone pay to join a library when the excellent public network is ubiquitous and free?
Why, in the age of eBooks, would anyone forgo the convenience of digital downloads to brave Seattle’s notorious congestion and go to a physical address downtown?
Brewster smiles patiently as I trot out the objections. He has a gleam in his eye and a vision of his bibliophile’s heaven.
Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum will be a social hub, a curated collection, a quiet place to read and contemplate and work. It’ll be a place for discussion groups and literary seminars, for concerts and serendipitous connections – a place to cultivate ideas.
It’s housed in part of the Y building at Fourth and Marion which is currently being refurbished ahead of an anticipated opening in October. There are already hundreds of books on the shelves and more stacked in piles awaiting classification.
Many have been donated from the private libraries of individuals. Folio aims to keep these as collections that might otherwise have been broken up.
The focus is on “quality books” so it’s not the place for the latest bodice ripper or Dan Brown. Its curation favors art, architecture, literature, history, economics, political science, journalism, philosophy, law and natural sciences. It’s especially strong on books about the Pacific Northwest.
All these, of course, can be found at the public library up the hill and while Brewster is careful not to denigrate its efforts, he points out that it has an ever-widening remit in its provision of information services.
His focus is much narrower – readers who cherish physical books and the tangible pleasures of reading, and authors who need a place to research, to write and to connect with other authors.
If it sounds like an elitist home for the literati it isn’t meant to be. Anyone can pop in and read books at Folio, just not take them away, and free or low-cost public programs are promised. Borrowing books requires membership which is $125 a year.
Brewster is especially keen for Folio to become a hub for young, up-and-coming writers in the area and board member Steve Scher, the journalist and former KUOW commentator, sees it as a potential space from which he can produce live podcasts on books.
So far the enterprise – a tax exempt, non-profit – has raised almost $100,000 towards running costs. The gamble for donors is whether the niche is strong enough and distinctive enough to attract and retain members in a whirlwind of digital disruption and changing consumer habits.