Can You Find Seattle's Most Secret Library?

Can You Find Seattle's Most Secret Library?

By Duncan Forgan



Because this slice of “old Seattle” might not be around forever. 

By Duncan Forgan

Sometimes the best city treasures are buried deep. It’s an adage borne out by the tricky current location of the Seattle Metaphysical Library. 

Approaching the historic Kress Building in the Ballard neighborhood, there’s next to zero notice that you are homing in on one of the city’s most singular attractions, a resource where casual browsers can brush up on everything from UFOs and occult fiction to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Sandwiched between a pie bakery and a record retailer is an unmarked glass door that provides access to the basement, where the library is located. There’s now some signage — the library recently signed a lease after years of renting on a month to month basis. Nevertheless, this remains an attraction that requires some hunting down. Its mysterious presence is indicative of the library’s often mind-blowing collection of 14,000 volumes plus hundreds of audio and video tapes, CDs, DVDs, magazines and newspaper clippings on a variety of metaphysical and spiritual topics.

In those days, it was considered borderline witchcraft.

Margaret Bartley, Seattle Metaphysical Library

It’s a hoard that goes way beyond the remit of even the most well-stocked and open-minded public library and is one that, says library member Robb Barnes, “provides people with the opportunity to find out themselves who they are.” The need to be furtive, meanwhile, is something the library has had to get used to since being founded by three retired schoolteachers back in 1961.

“They wanted to share their interest in esoteric and spiritual work,” says long-serving library president Margaret Bartley. “In those days, it was considered borderline witchcraft and had to be kept quiet.”

Certainly, the library has had to stay nimble to survive for 50-plus years. At first it operated out of Pike Place Market as a weekend-only concern. When the Pike Place Market underwent extensive renovations in the 1970s, the library endured a roving existence before settling in the Oddfellows Hall on Capitol Hill. In 2000, rent increases led to three more moves, the last one to the current location in Ballard.

As Bartley is quick to point out, the library’s hobolike existence has brought many challenges. So too has its status as a purely nonprofit concern, sustained by donations and the efforts of passionate volunteers. Nevertheless, there’s a palpable pride in the “aggressively agnostic” assemblage of often rare literature it now possesses.

“There’s a deliberate emphasis on material that is not generally available,” Bartley says. “The rest of society is catching up with us, and some of the subjects that we focus on are now also acceptable in academic and public libraries, but it’s still limited and shallow compared to our collection.”

“I don’t worry about whether the SML is labeled as being ‘New Agey,’” adds library vice president Ron Ginther. “New concepts in physics, health, biology, ecology and, above all, ‘mysteries of the mind’ are confirming the validity of ancient ideas once dismissed as superstition or abstract irreligious symbolism. These could lead us to a true ‘New Age.’”

Although not a tourist attraction as such — “It’s a library,” Bartley states — browsers are actively encouraged to come support one of the few remaining all-volunteer, all-donation community resource centers in the city. In fact, with Ballard gentrifying, it could be that this vestige of rapidly vanishing “old Seattle” will be forced to up sticks once again. For now, it’s the only show in town when it comes to sharing underground knowledge in a subterranean setting.