What we remember; Drinks with Peter Miller*
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BUILD chats with Peter Miller about café etiquette, keeping your soul and the benefits of a recession.
Back in 2008, BUILD tipped back a few with Peter Miller at his well known architectural & design bookshop here in Seattle. We caught up with Peter on café etiquette, keeping your soul and the benefits of a recession. The interview went missing for a few years until we just recently stumbled upon it in the BUILDblog archives.
You didn’t start out in a field related to architecture or design; tell us a bit about your education.
I was sitting at a cafe in Italy; this is where your education comes from. I thought I would have water with my espresso and my buddy turns to me and says, “They’re not going to give you any water, they don’t think you’re smart enough to know what to do with it.” Always drink water with wine, that is something the Italians do and they live well for their whole lives, despite their diet. You know, I’m going to do everything I can to not answer your questions.
You’re originally from the East Coast—what were you up to there before coming west?
Oh yeah, that. Harvard ’68 and all that. I was just remembering that I had lunch with Martin Luther King Jr. exactly  years ago on April 1st, to get him to come to Williams College and help protest the [Vietnam] War. First thing I had ever tried to actively organize in my life, and they kill the guy four days later. Things were totally out of control then, with the War and with the protests. You were dead—you, college educated and young—you were coming home in a coffin. Everything and everybody was in total chaos until Nixon cracked down on everything. He shut it all down and that was the beginning of taking the soul right out of this country.
Getting back to your life before architectural books, you fled the East to come west?
Not entirely, I went to Philadelphia to teach high school, to make a difference. On the first day, I put on my nice clothes, walked down the street and was robbed of forty dollars. The next day I left with only ten dollars and was robbed of that. I hung in there for a while longer and then ended up in Eugene, Oregon.
And your interest in architecture started sometime thereafter? You came to Seattle because it was the big town of the Northwest?
I drove from Eugene as far as Olympia and thought this is the ugliest place I’ve ever been. I went back to Eugene and my room was rented. So, I thought what the hell, Seattle has all the cheap housing I could ever want. I might as well go up there and get something.
This is in the early 1970s when everyone was fleeing Seattle?
Oh yeah. Boeing in the dumps, the whole billboard with “will the last one out (of the city), please turn off the lights” and all that. Yeah, my whole reason for coming to Seattle was easy housing.
So, what did you do when you arrived here?
The Seattle schools were a total disaster. One day you’re working the next you’re not. So, I went into buying houses in the city for $5,000. I would put three months and $15,000 into them and sell them. This kept me and my little crew eating. I know, five thousand damn dollars, can you believe that? Nobody was here though—you could literally buy any house you wanted.
How did you get drawn to selling architectural books?
I’m always going to get Italian food at Filibertos, and meeting all the other interesting Italians there. There are no Italian places in Seattle, you had to go to the airport back then to get good Italian food. Now, at least we have La Medusa in Columbia City. So my first partner and I, Ray Mungo, opened a general bookstore in Wallingford and ran our little business for a while. Then, I’m asked by Elliott Bay Books to help build out their location in Pioneer Square. I’m in there looking at these damn books about things like topography, furniture, wood detailing, and I realize I don’t know anything about anything. I was totally inspired by the richness of Pioneer Square but there wasn’t really anything down there—you know a cafe and a hotel down the street and that’s about it. But I find this little dumpy place and decide to open a design bookstore, but I wasn’t really even sure what that was.
How did you make it work, since it apparently worked?
I was totally inspired by the Engel book on Japanese houses and somehow got my hands on a GA Houses, Issue Number Two. Now, this blows my mind, the damn thing is so damn beautiful. I write them asking them to send me some. I’m not even sure how to send the thing to them, how much postage to put on. I may as well be putting the thing in a bottle or sending it to the moon. And the darnedest thing—these perfect GA magazines arrive sometime later and people just come in and start buying them. Just like that. I got other stock, and it all sold. All of it.
So this is when Seattle is coming into its Renaissance with Olson Walker and Hillclimb Court?
It’s around 1978, and yes, the city just has all of these architects milling around. And they keep me in business.
Where did things go from there?
That is when it gets interesting. Bill Stout, the Achilles of the bookstore owners, comes by to check me out. He’s a nice guy, he stops by, and we strike up a friendship. But this town is all about being relentless. In fact, this is a town where being relentless matters much more than having quality. Men are stuck. This is a matriarchal town, and the women are the only ones that can break through. It’s closed down and not a particularly friendly town, but then again it never was.
Okay, now this is getting somewhere—how did you fit in this town by offering only quality? How are you going to fit in this town with the discount booksellers sprouting up all over the place?
Oh, are you talking about the computer people? They are all taking over. They are mostly soulless, and the perfect example of our city’s relentless nature. They aren’t really even smart, no it’s something else. It’s more of a cunning. You know the people, the ones that are buoyant. Buoyant in a time of deep sorrow in this country. It’s ugly and inelegant and estranged. This is the curse of the internet—it is totally out of sequence with life.
So how do you survive in this?
People will always want something of quality, something real, something sensual. I had this guy come into my store with his little son years ago, just at the start of Amazon. He has this pained looked and tells me how much he loves my store but that we are just going to get buried by Amazon. Not smug, not righteous, just matter-of-factly. I told him that we’ll see who wins, and I tell him the next time he passes by my store just keep on walking by, he’s no longer welcome in here. And that goes for his son too. That is the brilliance of Amazon. They are really Walmart yet have positioned themselves to look like this happy little resource. Sooner or later people will figure out that they are Walmart. Yet, here we are, 15 years later. We’re still here. People will always want the quality. This is why Bellevue will just not happen. It is not going to ever happen there, guaranteed. It, and they, will all be here. There is and will never be soul in Bellevue.
How is it that you’ve remained in Seattle all these years? How come some bigger city didn’t draw you to it?
Schools, pretty much. My kids don’t want to leave these schools. And there is a community here for this. I’ve been offered a move to New York City by Rizzoli many times.
What about the future makes you feel so confident in this?
Many things, but the coming recession is actually going to be good for me. If the financial greedy race this country has been in continued, I’d be dead. Peter Miller Books would be dead. But recessions, as odd is it sounds, will save things. This type of situation cares about things like Peter Miller Books. It’s like watching Edgar Martinez play baseball; he just owned those pitchers, just owned them. He wouldn’t just slap hit a pitch first or third base side; he may foul off a bunch of pitches and then whack it right over the pitcher’s head up the middle. Let that pitcher know that he has their number, no doubt about it. And that’s what I’ve got, it can take me awhile, but I’ll win.
*The information in this post was most likely collected under the influence of alcohol. The effects of bourbon and/or gin can often blur the lines between fact and fiction, promote hyperbole, and encourage exaggeration for the purpose of humor. If we have misrepresented the facts, skewed the truth, or outright lied, please accept this as an invitation to throw some tomatoes at us in our comments section.
A huge thanks to Peter Miller and cheers from team BUILD