When you grow up in Spokane and don't identify with the mainstream culture, you learn to find your little oases.
The Christian hegemony is strong — even in retail — from coffee shops playing worship rock to thrift stores funded and animated by religious organizations to craft stores with ready-made Jesus signs. This makes a kind of consumer-logic that can be found in other places, as well, and growing up queer in Spokane, I learned to find my littles oases.
Packed with all the bizarre, fringe books that can be tricky to find online or offline, vintage oddities, natural history specimens and comics, Giant Nerd Books is one such place. The bookstore has an occult section, shelves devoted to Eastern philosophy, a healthy horror wall, art books, classic literature, science, collectibles and so much more that you'll easily lose an hour or so wandering the curated stacks.
GIANT NERD BOOKS
OFF THE BEATEN PATH
607 W. Garland Ave. • giantnerdbooks.com • 509-868-0420
BARKER BOOKS AND VINTAGE
2907 N. Monroe St. • barkerbooksandvintage.com
907 W. Garland Ave. • facebook.com/booksrockmysocksoff
2174 Hamilton St. Spokane • facebook.com/page42spokane
2415 N. Government Way, Coeur d'Alene • bookishlyhappy.com
CORNER DOOR FOUNTAIN & BOOKS
3301 N Argonne Rd., Millwood • cornerdoor.com
What seems eclectic and disparate all orbits together around the shop's owner, Nathan Huston, who collects the objects that gravitate toward him and holds them out to help keep our community a little strange. Huston has been an alternative bookseller in Spokane for 15 years, working first out of a consignment space in Timebomb Collectibles before opening a full showroom on Monroe.
Recently, he's moved into a new space on Garland Avenue with four times as much space as his previous spot. "There's a lot more foot traffic," he says. "The 20 mph speed limit is a big help. People are forced to drive slow, so we're a lot more visible. And there are no apartments upstairs here with 100-year-old leaking plumbing destroying my books."
As I wander the space, groups churn in and out. Some have no idea what they are looking for until their hand falls on the cover and they find it. Others — like the young girl who walks straight to the desk and asks where to find A Series of Unfortunate Events — know exactly what they are looking for.
Huston, a kind and thoughtful presence with a dedication to the obscure, has built an empire by knowing what he is looking for. Giant Nerd Books is an emblem of a lifelong hobby. "I started buying old stuff at yard sales when I was a kid and could trade them for things I wanted more," he says. "Eventually I opened a shop so I had somewhere to put my stuff."
Having been in the business for so long, Huston has seen many shops shutter.
"In the '70s and '80s there were used bookstores all over the place. At one point some roommates and I did a fanzine that was a pro-Spokane cheerleader, and I did a feature on used bookstores, and it was several pages long," Huston says. "Now I think there's four."
If the kind of bookstore that he's running is a bit of a lost art, it's definitely not a dead industry. "I feel there's a bit of a backlash to the internet sales. With books especially, there's a certain immediacy. If you're in the mood for Dracula or you're in the mood for Kurt Vonnegut, you want it right then. You don't want to wait a week or two for shipping. There's a tactile element."
He pauses, glancing around the back inventory space, the piles and piles of new books that have yet to be priced and put on the shelves. "Some media are built for permanence. Books and vinyl records are two that come to mind. Everything else just feels temporary."
In a time of extreme flux for everyone, Giant Nerd remains a touchstone in the community, using social media to display books and respond to customer requests. During the height of COVID, Huston says, he noticed people wanting to binge-read series.
"Big uptick in fantasy novels that were three or four inches thick, science fiction, and a lot of metaphysical and occult," Huston says. "I don't know if that was a coping mechanism or it was just one of those things where people have lists of books they've always intended to read and the lockdown gave them time."
Due to the nature of his work, Huston is constantly reading books that he might stock on the shelves, following up on requests, and doing research for titles that would fit in with the selection he already has. When it comes to pleasure reading, it's usually natural history books on reptiles.
"Family legend has it that I taught myself to read using books on snakes and dinosaurs at the library when I was 3," he says. "My parents built a house out north of town in the mid-'70s, and there were only a dozen or so houses in the neighborhood, so there was a lot of woods. A lot of rocks to turn over and look for wiggly things. A lot of places for a youngster to develop an interest in nature and/or get in trouble."
Huston wants to be a facilitator of that kind of wonder.
"As a kid I was always a big fan of the old curiosity shop by the waterfront in Seattle, so I would like to do something like that but less cheesy," he says. "I've got a metaphysical section in the front of the shop, but I would like the science section to be just as big if not bigger to have a balance. Having natural history specimens in the shop seems like an extension of that. It's a way for people to see some stuff they might not otherwise have been exposed to or thought about."
When he speaks about his natural history specimens, now, his face lights up and it's easy to see that child checking under rocks. Giant Nerd Books is a bit like that: The door on Garland like a stone to turn over. Walk through and you'll discover everything wiggly — fiction, astrology, crime paperbacks — and if you're lucky, in this counterculture oasis, you might find yourself, too. ♦