`Mr. Books' Closing Out Ave Chapter

Norman Vincent Peale, who died the other day at the age of 937, or something, was an elder statesman among all the up-and-at-'em gurus we have around today.

It happens that I talked to a man who helped give Norman Vincent his start, if only in a minuscule way.

The guy was a young book salesman in Walla Walla and pushed Peale's "The Power of Positive Thinking" when it came out in 1952.

It didn't need much push. Peale's book, exhorting us to think well of ourselves and a fair primer in butt-kissing, was up there in sales with the Holy Bible and M. Scott Peck's "The Road Less Traveled."

I hasten to add that the latter two are not of the same genre.

But here he was, this kid, now 70, whose card reads, "Leroy Soper, Semi-Retired," and below that, "Professional Bookseller Extraordinaire of the Great Northwest."

Any latecomer to literacy should know who Lee Soper is.

He is the semiretired head of the University Book Store, out on The Ave. (Editor's note: Watson figures any latecomer to Seattle should know The Ave is University Way Northeast. Like most Seattleites, he mumbles when he explains whence the name.)

But here's something you might not know:

The U Book Store is No. 1 in general book sales of the so-called Big 10 of college bookstores - a list that includes Harvard, Stanford, Michigan and UCLA.

The store on The Ave annually sells $11 million worth of books. The Bellevue branch checks in at $4 million. Additionally, in textbooks, the U Book Store grosses $12 million. "We just seem to like books," Lee Soper says, of Seattle and the Northwest.

There is far more to it than that.

If you listen to book dealers, sales reps and authors, they will tell you that Seattle is the highest per capita book-buying city in America. Presumably, these books get read. Which (also presumably) implies Seattle is the nation's most literate city.

Lee Soper had something to do with this.

Late last year they had a "retirement dinner" for Lee. They passed out buttons that read, "Good-bye, Mr. Books."

The U Book Store's Judith Chandler described the dinner for me.

She said it was convocation, a "whole web" of Northwest book people - salesmen and saleswomen, store owners, wholesalers, publisher reps and authors.

"Those people owed a lot to Lee," she said. "Many of us owed our careers to Lee. He was unique. He never regarded books as merchandise. He saw book selling as a profession.

"We never thought of ourselves as clerks. Lee had a respect for books; he wanted anyone who worked in the store to have that respect."

Lee Soper is a soft-spoken, elegant man with a rich vein of humor in him. He majored in English at Whitman, began selling books right out of school.

He joined the U Book Store in 1960, then quit to found Raymar, the Northwest's first large book-distribution center.

Lee returned to the U Book Store in 1977 and went about the serious business of becoming an institution.

He takes no credit for Seattle's alleged literacy.

"I think it's kind of like the movie `Field of Dreams,' " he says of Seattle's many bookstores, principally his own. "If you build it, they will come."

Lee helped dozens of bookstores get started, places like Kay's in U Village, Mercer Island, Bailey-Coy and before that Elliott Bay Books, the big one in Pioneer Square.

"Mr. Books," will travel some and put his own large library together - a personal collection that includes a lot of first editions and signed copies from dozens of big-name writers.

In his time, he did build it, and they did come.

Emmett Watson's column appears Tuesday and Friday in the Local section of The Times.