Ask anyone to close their eyes and picture a four-decade-old used-book store situated next to a major university, and the bookstore they imagine is likely to resemble Magus Books in Seattle’s University District.
With its high ceilings and pleasantly cramped aisles packed full of quality used books, Magus hums with the certain ineffable quality that all great used-book stores enjoy. You could scoop the shop up from its foundations and drop it in any of the world’s greatest cities — New York, Rome, London — and it would fit in without any major alterations. It’s at once timeless and effortlessly modern, the kind of place where you can grab an armload of Modern Library hardbacks and still have enough cash left over to scoop up the latest romance from TikTok-approved, bestselling author Colleen Hoover on the way to the register.
“It is quintessential,” Magus co-owner Hanna McElroy laughs. When she and her husband Chris Weimer bought Magus in 2004, the shop was already an institution. Weimer says the storefront at 1408 N.E. 42nd St. has been home to bookstores since the 1930s — for a while it was The Bookworm, then an anarchist shop called The Id, before finally evolving into Magus in 1978. Under the watchful eye of owner David Bell, Magus became the institution that we know today.
In the early years of the 21st century, Weimer was buying rare books at estate sales and thrift stores and reselling them to local booksellers. One day, he brought his most recent finds to Magus and the book buyer declined, explaining that the store was for sale and couldn’t afford to accumulate any more debt. Weimer recalls, “Then he said, ‘Do you wanna buy a bookstore?’ and I said, ‘Well, sure, maybe.’”
McElroy had been doing merchandising for large Seattle-area corporations like Starbucks and Eddie Bauer. The plan was that Weimer would financially stabilize Magus while McElroy maintained a steady income at her corporate gigs to subsidize the endeavor. “But about six months in, Chris was having so much more fun than I was,” McElroy explained, and she left corporate life behind to join him at Magus full time.
The couple set to work restoring Magus’ collection, which had fallen into disarray as Bell sought out a buyer, but they weren’t interested in changing the atmosphere that Bell had worked so hard to establish. “The quality of our inventory went up fairly soon and we saw an improvement in sales the very first year we took over,” Weimer explains, adding “the character of the store didn’t change, it was just more robust.”
Weimer says with some satisfaction that customers frequently walk in to Magus “and they say ‘I went to college here in 1982, and the store still smells the same and looks the same.’ That happens multiple times a week.”
What’s the secret to maintaining that distinctive character across the decades? “We still don’t ever mop the floors,” McElroy cracks. “I always warn people not to sit down on them.”
Now, the couple oversee a dozen employees, and Magus handles a truly staggering number of books flooding in and out the doors on a daily basis. “We look at thousands of books a week,” McElroy says. “And every single day we find a book that none of us has ever seen before. That keeps it fresh for us.”
On virtually any trip to Magus, browsers are likely to eavesdrop on some of the best conversations in the city. New University of Washington students gossip about their peers and faculty, and young readers introduce each other to Ursula K. Le Guin, Haruki Murakami, and the vibrant Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translations of Russian authors like Dostoevsky, Bulgakov and Tolstoy. The most earnest, enthusiastic conversations about literature in Seattle happen in the aisles of Magus every day.
McElroy says it’s “reassuring” to see these young readers get excited about literature as they browse the shop. “Some of them come in every single day, and they are just so into it. That’s extremely rewarding,” she says.
After spending almost two decades shepherding Magus Books into the 21st century, Weimer and McElroy have undertaken a new project: On Oct. 15, they opened the doors to a new Magus annex about a mile up the road in Wallingford.
For longtime Seattle book-lovers, the new location needs no introduction: the annex is in the old Open Books space at 2414 N. 45th St. For years, former Open Books owners John Marshall and Christine Deavel lived in the house above the poetry-only bookstore they built out of a garage space. But when Deavel and Marshall decided to sell the property, Weimer and McElroy partnered with friends to buy it and are now converting the upstairs home into an Airbnb rental. (Fans of Open Books need not despair — the poetry bookstore moved into a new, larger Pioneer Square location last spring.)
“John and Christine were really, really thrilled that we wanted to put a little baby Magus in the downstairs,” McElroy says. And now, the couple that has built a career out of maintaining a pillar of the Seattle bookselling community is creating a new tradition of their own.
McElroy says the annex “is in its first iteration right now, and I don’t think it’s necessarily where we’ll land. We just want to get it to a place where it’s a strong neighborhood fixture.”
“There is already a lot of excitement in the neighborhood” for the annex, McElroy says. “People are really jazzed to have a bookstore back.”
While Magus feels like it somehow has a copy of every single book ever published crammed inside its walls, the annex feels breezier, and more primed for discovery. It’s a general-interest bookstore with strong fiction and arts sections, including poetry books purchased from Open Books before the move.
But customers at the annex also have access to all the books in stock at the main Magus store, which the staff has started to refer to as “the engine.” McElroy and Weimer spent the last five years computerizing all of Magus’ inventory, so customers can instantly learn if the book they’re looking for is in stock at either location, “and we can either hold it or send the book to the other store” for the customer to purchase.
Customers looking to sell books can always bring them to the main Magus store on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Magus Books offers either cash or 50% more in store credit. The annex is currently offering credit only, and while customers can bring in books to the new location at any time, the store does request that sellers limit themselves to one grocery bag of books per visit.
With every bag of books that neighbors are bringing in to the annex, McElroy says, they’re helping to shape the stock of the new store, to help it reflect the neighborhood’s interests. At Magus, McElroy explains, “We very much feel like we’re stewards of this place, and that we dare not let it down.” But the annex is an opportunity to build something all their own.
“It’s fun to try something new,” McElroy says, and she’s eager to discover the character of her new pride and joy. “When you walk in the door of the annex, it feels a lot cleaner and a little giftier. It already has its own really sweet feel to it.”