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How Seattle Became a City of Literature — and How Your Town Can Too


How Seattle Became a City of Literature — and How Your Town Can Too

It takes a lot of love for books to become a City of Literature

It’s not easy to earn the designation as a City of Literature, an honor bestowed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization on cities who show special love to the written and spoken word. Only 28 cities in the world have done it. In 2017, Seattle cracked the code to become a City of Literature.

Seattle is one of only two in the U.S. to achieve the sought-after designation.

Here’s how Seattle became a City of Literature and how your town can, too.

1) Thriving independent bookstores

What U.S. city has the most bookstores per capita? That’s right! Seattle.

We’re not talking just big names like Barnes and Noble. Small Indie bookstores are thriving all around the city. Not even the opening of a massive Amazon bookstore in the University Village shopping center could put a damper on things.

Book stores like Elliot Bay Book Company, Queen Anne Book Company, Lion Heart Book Store host special events to give people plenty of reason to stop in. They fill their events calendars with author talks, book signings, book clubs and children story times.

Perhaps it’s the cozy living-room-like feel of many Indie bookstores. Or maybe it’s the highly personalized service. Or just the fact that Seattle residents love to support mom-and-pop shops. Whatever the reason, the city’s bookstores will likely remain a popular gathering place for the long haul.

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Elliot Bay Books - Seattle - City of Literature
Elliot Bay Book Company, Seattle, Washington.

2) Writing groups

Look up professional writing groups in Seattle and an impressively long list comes to light. While many of them are cozy groups with fewer than 100 members, a lot of them have hundreds or even thousands of members.

All that coffee, fresh air, and mountain views must serve as a special sort of writing inspiration.

3) Generously funded public libraries

What is one of the most recognizable and intriguing buildings in Seattle? OK, yes, the Space Needle. But next is the Seattle Public Library.

This incredible feat of engineering and architecture is astounding. The structure alone draws many curious visitors each day.

With generous funding, including the largest single donation ever given to a library ($20 million from Bill and Melinda Gates), Seattle public libraries are impressive centers of knowledge and education.

Top that with the fact that 80 percent of residents have a library card. What does that tell you? People in this city love to read.

4) A slew of publishers and small presses

Trying to publish a book? Seattle is a good place to do it.

There are dozens of small publishers and presses in Washington. Plus, many of these companies are niche publishers, so writers can work with a company that truly gets their work.

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5) Seattle City of Literature Nonprofit

Perhaps the key step Seattle took to earn the title as a City of Literature is that they worked for it. With so many Seattle residents interested in reading and writing, it was natural for a nonprofit to pop up with a goal to do just that. 

In 2013, the city launched the Seattle City of Literature nonprofit organization. Its first duty was to make a bid for UNESCO’s sought-after designation as a City of Literature.

One failed attempt in 2015 couldn’t stop them. And now Seattle proudly calls itself a City of Literature.

6) Keep at it

UNESCO charges cities of literature with a big task—to work toward UNESCO’s 17 developmental goals. These goals include quality education and an effort to reduce inequality—both which can be furthered by harnessing literary arts.

City leaders say they’re excited about the future and dream of the day that Seattle is known to the world as a leader in both technology and literature.

Related: How Virginia’s Oldest Bookstore Stays Relevant

Related: Pop-up Bookstores Bring the Written Word to You

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