Seattle resident Monica Lemoine has been a teacher for nearly 20 years, most recently as a Senior English Instructor at Highline Community College. “I remember learning one day that many of my students couldn’t remember the last time they picked up a book for pleasure,” she says. “The joy of reading had been taken away from them, it just wasn’t seen as fun anymore.”
Lemoine had always liked to read. “It can relieve stress, 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. She told them that they could choose any type of book they wanted to discuss. “It doesn’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning book,” she recalls Lemoine telling her students. “It can be a graphic novel, or about video games, or anything.”
She watched the lights go up in her students’ eyes as the reading group read David Benioff’s coming-of-age adventure about two young Russian soldiers during the siege of Leningrad, “City of Thieves.” “Everyone loved this book. Absolutely everyone”, remembers Lemoine. “It was the only time I ever saw 17-year-olds get into a story.”
The book club became a regular fixture, and Lemoine became addicted to connecting non-readers with the perfect book. “I love teaching,” she says Lemoine, but the book club “made me realize 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 started thinking about food trucks. Ultimately, Lemoine purchased a 22-foot-long 2014 Ford StarTrans bus from a used transportation dealer at SeaTac last year. In the previous life of the shuttle, Lemoine believes that he transported tourists from hotels to the airport and back, but he had a vision of a bookstore on wheels.
Earlier this spring, Lemoine shipped the shuttle to NMK Mobile Fabricators, an Oregon-based company that builds custom food trucks for Seattle institutions like Dick’s Drive-In, Napkin Friends and Pecos Pit Bar-B-Que. Last month, he drove his new bookstore home. NMK had covered the white shuttle bus entirely in vibrant blue vinyl wrap, and the sides, front, and back are adorned with the Lemoine designed logo: “Blue Kettle Books: A Bookshop on Wheels.”
For the past few weeks, Lemoine has been working on all the finishing touches, stocking Blue Kettle’s shelves, creating the store’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 p.m. The store will appear at family events throughout the summer, including Northwest Folklife, Kirklandia, Fremont Fair, PrideFest and the Mill Creek Festival.
In the same way that his book club reinvigorated a love of reading in jaded students, Lemoine wants to bring Blue Kettle Books to events and venues attended by people who don’t regularly visit bookstores, providing a frictionless entry point to the pleasure to read. . Her goal 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-like the small space feels. Outside the shuttle, Lemoine sets up a few shelves with picture books and children’s puzzles to intrigue would-be seekers and convince them to come inside. Directly upon entering, patrons will find some high-end greeting cards, stuffed animals, blankets and candy. Lemoine prioritizes American-made sideline activities, mostly from small businesses and artisans of color.
And then the navigators are surrounded by warm wooden shelves stocked with books for all ages and a couple of cubbies where little readers can curl up with a picture book. Lemoine has sorted the adult titles into thematic categories like “Love Lighter Lit,” where romantic comedies and humor books go; “Take a Thrill Ride,” for tense literary books; and “Get Hooked,” which is made up of the first installments of “binge-worthy” series written by authors like Diana Gabaldon, Jacqueline Winspear and David Baldacci. It’s a cheery space that, through some act of alchemy, feels entirely like a bookstore and not at all like an airport shuttle.
The average 1,200-square-foot bookstore has 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. While buying stocks, she sent out a survey to friends and family asking them to list their “absolute favorite” fiction, non-fiction and children’s titles – the books they would recommend to anyone. She keeps an eye on reviews and talks to everyone she knows about those rare, life-changing books that can win over even the least practicing readers. “If you knew the amount of time I’ve spent on each and every book on these shelves, you’d be amazed,” she says.
Lemoine has big plans for his little mobile library. She hopes to find several commercial parking lots that will allow Blue Kettle to set up shop regularly during the week, even as she drives the shop to the region’s breweries, festivals and farmers’ markets on weekends. She wants to visit schools and organize children’s book fairs. And at some point, Lemoine could open a traditional iteration of Blue Kettle, but for now she’s excited to take her bookstore to the road that runs through North Seattle and the Eastside, looking for people who need to fall in love with reading again.
What’s on the shelves at Blue Kettle Books?
About 40% of Blue Kettle Books is dedicated to children’s literature, and many of those books “teach kids really important perspectives on social justice issues and other important issues,” Lemoine says. But “I think it’s also important for children to laugh, relax and get involved in a story.” She says the 1970s picture book “The Giant Jam Sandwich” is her last: a “really fun, silly, imaginative, off-the-radar gem for kids.”
Blue Kettle Books divides its books into broad subject categories including “Savor Deep Reading,” 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 are books that I have curated that are deep, layered, long, savory, slow reads that also draw attention from the pages.”
David Benioff’s novel “City of Thieves” is the World War II page-turner that helped Lemoine realize that everyone who doesn’t read is just waiting for a great book to transform them into lovers of literature. “I’m also excited to have it in stock because the good guys in the book are Russian,” which, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, gives the 2008 book an attractive topical theme. “Reading inspires empathy and humanizes people, and during a time of violence and horror, we really need more of that,” Lemoine says.