“Books are Shy” – Peter Miller and the Art of Selling Books


Finding Peter Miller’s bookstore in the alleyways of Pioneer Square is a bit like a treasure hunt. Even if you have a good map – like Google’s – some luck can be helpful. But once you’ve found the shop – in Post Alley, between South Main and South Jackson Streets – you know you’re discovered something special.

Eight thousand books – mostly about architecture and design – are neatly stacked on tables and organized in floor-to-ceiling shelves. Miller can tell you something about every one of them because he personally selects each one.

Miller does reserve one corner of his shop for items for design and writing nerds. He especially loves mechanical pencils, and has pens, journals, notebooks, sketch pads, and pencil sharpeners as well. He also sells beautiful – though not-quite-so-inexpensive – timepieces, lamps, Tivoli radios, and housewares. But it’s really about the books.

The first time I walked into Miller’s bookstore (at a different location), perhaps 35 years ago, my reaction was: Great place, amazing collection, but it can’t possibly survive. It was the ‘90s. Grunge was still a thing, and Seattle was still kind of provincial. How many people would want to drive downtown and find a parking place to buy a relatively pricey book on architecture or design?

Apparently enough. Peter Miller Books has been around now for 45 years and his shop has survived Amazon’s assault on bricks-and-mortar bookstores, the 2008 recession, Covid-19, and Seattle’s years-long waterfront project.

That’s because Miller knows his books and has built a devoted following of architects and architectural buffs, aficionados of graphic, landscape, interior and industrial design, artists, photographers, and people who enjoy discovering what Miller himself is discovering. His customers aren’t just from the Northwest. People from around the world who know of him stop by the shop when they’re in town. 

Miller, 78, knew next to nothing about retailing when he opened his shop. But one thing he had going for him was that his father was a retailer who ran a fine clothing shop in Hartford, Connecticut for 33 years. 

Recently, Miller published a book about what he’s learned and the insights he has tucked away over the years. It’s called Shopkeeping: Stories, Advice, and Observations. Miller’s book is unlike any business book I’ve read. It’s more of a meditation on almost a half-century of shopkeeping.

Although Miller earned a master’s degree in English from Harvard, he says in the book that “you learn to be a retailer not by going to school but by going to work. It is a fragile occupation and hard on your heart. You put on the same show each day and hope that you have chosen well, that it is what people might want. You worry and you wonder and, for much of the time, you are alone with your decisions.”

Miller shares insights on whether to greet customers (always), when to offer help (carefully so as not to make the customer suspicious), and the organization of merchandise – especially books. “Books are shy,” Miller says. “They take longer than everyone else. They spend most of their lives vertically on a shelf, spine side out, with only a title and author and a publisher’s icon to announce them. They open, and open up, only if you open them. Even King Lear can be outshouted by a rubber duck.”  

This is why he selects every one of the 8,000 books – and why he spends time thinking about whether each will live well with other books. “The book must make friends; it must have a good appearance and an appropriate one… it must have a good feel, a good title, and a good length fitting to its subject.”

He also muses over which books win a prime spot on the center table. There are rules, he says, though not really. It’s an intangible set of factors – patterns, color, typeface, and graphics – that make the decision. 

Anyone who has traveled to Europe knows that one of the joys is walking through narrow passageways, discovering shops that are special in some way. Even if you don’t buy anything, it’s fun to explore. I asked Peter what other shops in Seattle resonate in that way for him. He mentioned three: Metsker Maps, the Imperfetta wine shop, and Flora and Henri.

Eighty percent of Peter’s sales are in the shop, but his website is a valuable presence that enables him to stay connected with customers and reach a wider audience to both sell and buy books. Miller commutes most days by Sounder train and ferry to and from his home on Whidbey Island. He’s at his bookstore six days a week, 10 am-5 pm. In his “spare” time he writes for Post Alley. He publishes a newsletter, and he has written three other books: How to Wash the DishesLunch at the Shop: The Art and Practice of the Midday Meal; and Five Ways to Cook Asparagus (and Other Recipes): The Art and Practice of Making Dinner. (The latter two are out-of-print but available online).

Wandering through his shop, I was thinking about a book my wife might enjoy. She’s a printmaker who is currently working on a series about plants and leaves. I showed Peter a book that seemed like a possibility, but it wasn’t quite right. He disappeared for a moment and returned with a stunningly beautiful 300-page catalog of prints: Capturing Nature: 150 Years of Nature Printing. I would never have found the book. But among his collection of 8,000 books, Miller knew exactly which one she would like.

As I was about to leave, a young man entered the store with a cup of coffee in each hand. Looking a bit horrified, Miller asked politely if he could put the man’s coffee cups on the front counter. Half-jokingly, he added: “You couldn’t frighten me more if you were pointing two pistols at me.”

Such is the love Miller has for his books. 


  1. I’m a retired librarian, who spent decades creating a reference collection at Bellevue College. The entire collection is gone now, because “students use ebooks” – which, in case anyone has noticed, can be altered. It’s horrifying to me.
    Peter Miller is a hero to me. Our Interior Design program and architectural history classes depended on Peter Miller’s bookstore.

    • My commiserations on the loss of your collection — sitting in a room full of books is the best place to be.


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