Seattle resident Monica Lemoine has been a teacher for about 20 years, most recently as a tenured English instructor at Highline Community College. “I remember one day learning that a lot of my students could not recall the last time they had picked up a book for pleasure,” she says. “The joy of reading had been sucked out of them — it just wasn’t really considered a fun thing to do anymore.”
Lemoine had always found reading to be joyful. “It can be a stress reliever, it can improve empathy, it can transport you to another time or place,” she says. So she decided to start an extracurricular book club with her students from her. She told them that they could pick whatever kind of book they wanted to discuss. “It does n’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning book,” Lemoine recalls telling her students about her. “It can be a graphic novel, or about video games, or anything.”
She saw the lights turn on in her students’ eyes when the book group read David Benioff’s coming-of-age adventure about two young Russian soldiers during the siege of Leningrad, “City of Thieves.” “Everybody loved this book. Absolutely everybody,” Lemone recalls. “It was the only time I had ever seen 17-year-old boys getting way into a story.”
The book club became a regular fixture, and Lemoine became addicted to connecting nonreaders to the perfect book. “I do love teaching,” Lemoine says, but the book club “sparked in me this realization that I would love to open a bookstore.”
Lemoine lives in North Seattle, and rents in the area are high. She considered different models for an independent bookstore, and she began to think about food trucks. Finally, Lemoine bought a 22-foot-long 2014 Ford StarTrans bus from a used-shuttle dealer in SeaTac last year. In the shuttle’s former life, Lemoine believes it ferried tourists from hotels to the airport and back, but she had a vision for a bookstore on wheels.
Earlier this spring, Lemoine sent the shuttle to NMK Mobile Fabricators, an Oregon-based company that custom-built food trucks for Seattle institutions like Dick’s Drive-In, Napkin Friends and Pecos Pit Bar-B-Que. Last month, she drove her new bookstore home. NMK had covered the white shuttle bus entirely in a vibrant blue vinyl wrap, and the sides, front, and back are all adorned with the logo Lemoine designed: “Blue Kettle Books: A Bookshop on Wheels.”
For the last few weeks, Lemoine has been working out all the final touches, stocking Blue Kettle’s shelves, building the shop’s website, and planning a full summer schedule for Seattle’s newest bookstore. On Friday, May 13, Blue Kettle Books will debut at Cairn Brewing in Kenmore from 4:30 to 8 pm The shop will make appearances at family-friendly events all summer long, including Northwest Folklife, Kirklandia, the Fremont Fair, PrideFest, and the Mill Creek Festival.
Much in the way that her book club reinvigorated the love of reading in jaded students, Lemoine wants to bring Blue Kettle Books to events and locations that are attended by people who don’t regularly visit bookstores, providing a frictionless entry point to the joy of reading. Her goal for her is to find people who don’t have the time or energy to read, and then sell them their new favorite book.
What’s most surprising when you walk into Blue Kettle Books for the first time is how cozy and, well, bookstore-ish the tiny space feels. Outside the shuttle, Lemoine sets up a few bookshelves with children’s picture books and puzzles to intrigue potential browsers and coax them inside. Directly on walking in, customers will find a few greeting cards, stuffed animals, blankets and high-end candy. Lemoine prioritizes American-made sidelines, mostly from small businesses and craftspeople of color.
And then browsers are surrounded by warm wooden shelves lined with books for all ages, and a pair of cubbies where small readers can curl up with a picture book. Lemoine has arranged the adult titles into thematic categories like “Love Lighter Lit,” where the romantic comedies and humor books go; “Take a Thrill Ride,” for tense literary page turners; and “Get Hooked,” which is made up of the first installations in “binge-worthy” series written by authors like Diana Gabaldon, Jacqueline Winspear and David Baldacci. It’s a cheerful space that, through some act of alchemy, feels entirely like a bookstore and not at all like an airport shuttle bus.
The average 1,200-square-foot bookstore carries approximately 20,000 titles. Blue Kettle only has enough shelf space for 800. “That means I don’t have room for a single bad book,” Lemoine explains. As she was buying stock, she sent a survey to friends and family asking them to list their “absolute favorite” fiction, nonfiction and children’s titles — the books that they’d recommend to anyone. She keeps an eye on reviews and talks to everyone she meets about those rare life-changing books that can win over even the most out-of-practice readers. “If you knew the amount of time I have been putting into each and every book on these shelves, you would be astonished,” she says.
Lemoine has big plans for her little bookmobile. She hopes to find several business parking lots that will allow Blue Kettle to set up shop on a regular basis during the week, even while she drives the store to breweries, festivals and farmers markets around the region on weekends. She wants to visit schools and host book fairs for kids. And at some point, Lemoine might open a brick and mortar iteration of Blue Kettle, but for now she’s enthusiastic about taking her bookstore on the road across North Seattle and the Eastside, in search of people who need to fall in love with reading again.
What’s on Blue Kettle Books’ shelves?
About 40% of Blue Kettle Books is devoted to children’s literature, and many of those books “teach kids really important perspectives about social justice issues and other important topics,” Lemoine says. But “I think it’s also important for kids to just laugh and relax and get into a story.” She says the 1970s picture book “The Giant Jam Sandwich” is the latter — a “really funny, silly, imaginative, off-the-radar gem for kids.”
Blue Kettle Books divides its books into broad thematic categories including “Savor a Deep Read,” which Lemoine describes as “literary gems, epic sagas, historical fiction and award-winning books. It could be ‘French Braid,’ ‘The Overstory,’ ‘Hamnet,’ ‘The Nickel Boys,’ or ‘Where the Crawdads Sing.’ They’re books that I have curated that are deep, layered, long, savory, slow reads that are also engaging page turners.”
David Benioff’s novel “City of Thieves” is the World-War-II page turner that helped Lemoine realize that every nonreader is just waiting for one great book to transform them into lovers of literature. “I’m also excited to stock it because the good guys in the book are Russian,” which, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, gives the 2008 book a compelling topical hook. “Reading inspires empathy and humanizes people, and during a time of violence and horror, we really need more of that,” Lemoine says.