'Skip' Berger returns to Kirkland with new book, 'Pugetopolis'
March 20, 2009 · 7:25 PM
Known for his old Seattle Weekly column and nom de plume "Mossback," most in the small crowd at Parkplace Books last Tuesday remembered him as just "Skip."
Reading from his new book, "Pugetopolis," Knute "Skip" Berger drew friendly laughter from the audience and traded smiles with close friends and bookstore owners Rebecca Willow and Mary Harris at the book reading and signing event. The trio know each other well from Berger's 20 years as a Kirkland resident.
"I loved living here," he said. "Places like this bookstore were a part of my life."
Often described as "a crank with a conscience," Berger's eclectic essays on localism while he worked as editor of the Seattle Weekly and columnist at Crosscut.com. are the main source for his new book, exploring the unique blend of history and politics in the Puget Sound. The bushy-haired Ballard native explored several well-worn myths and themes about life in Seattle, such as a computer shopping trip to Fry's Electronics in Renton and the scourge of cruise-ship tourism.
"From a very early age, I was interested in figuring out why people are the way they are here," he said.
Berger is currently engaged as Editor-at-Large of Seattle Magazine, a weekly contributor to 94.9 KUOW radio and "Mossback" columnist at the online news magazine, Crosscut. But for several years he worked as Editor-in-Chief of Eastside Week, an alternative weekly paper based in Kirkland. Seattle Weekly publisher David Brewster sought him out in 1990 to launch the publication, run from the old Eastside Journal Building on Lake Street from 1990 to 1998. Berger called the paper's run "very successful" and said it demonstrated a suburban community that could support such an enterprise.
He credited his move to Kirkland in the late 80s as playing a big role in developing his writing career. In addition to overseeing Eastside Week, he was also encouraged by Brewster to begin writing a column. The regular opining in his column allowed Berger to tap into his long-held interest in local history and politics - a focus that carried over into his new book and his writings today.
"I kinda cut my teeth writing here," he said.
Many members of the audience appeared to know the author personally, using his nickname Skip - and in return Berger called several by their first names. Playing off the home-crowd from under a pair of reading glasses, the burly Berger at turns reminisced and then skewered his former town: his cozy 1914 Norkirk bungalow and former biker-gang neighbors; panning the downtown public art "bunnies"; his children's observations of caffeine-addled DARE officers at the Parkplace Starbucks and dismissing Totem Lake as Kirkland's version of Tukwila. But overall, he painted Kirkland as a well-kept secret in the Eastside and a great place to raise a family.
"The things I would tell people that were so great about Kirkland," he said, "these types of things were under the radar screen of Seattle-ites."
A Q&A discussion after the reading ranged from the demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and print journalism to one of his readings about the "Myth of 'Seattle Nice'" - which Berger explained as the conundrum newcomers experience in getting to know seemingly polite natives or long-term inhabitants. Several batted around various theories to explain what West Seattle Herald writer Steve Shay called "Nice-olation," including the stormy weather, a homestead, do-it-yourself mentality and the idea that local tech and aerospace companies had attracted a disproportionate number of naturally unsocial engineers.
Moving to Juanita from Chicago in 1962, long-time resident Inge Thiesen said she experienced similar difficulties years ago. But the self-confessed extrovert said she focused on common interests with acquaintances such as skiing and mountaineering to form personal bonds.
"My opinions of Seattle have been formed by things I love about this place," she said. "When people complained about the weather, I said well, you know, that's not the weather - you want it to rain in Seattle so you can ski better on the weekend!"