Famed bookstore turns a page

Elliott Bay opens its next chapter with a move to Capitol Hill, where it just opened. But life isn't easy for booksellers these days.
Elliott Bay Book Company in its old Pioneer Square location.

Elliott Bay Book Company in its old Pioneer Square location. photo by Lisa Albers

The Kindle electronic reader. (Amazon)

The Kindle electronic reader. (Amazon) None

Last fall, I sat with Elliott Bay Book Company owner Peter Aaron as he outlined the challenges facing his endangered bookstore. The economy had wounded his book business two years running (not to mention the snowstorm of '08). Changes in Pioneer Square were having an impact on his business, resulting in fewer book buyers. And there was the rise of Elliott Bay’s neighbor, Amazon.com, a company that has utterly reshaped bookselling, undercutting bookstores by offering deeply discounted titles online.

At this point in the litany of woes, I realized I was part of Elliott Bay's problem. As a bibliophile and author, I have attended the legendary store's readings, purchased many books there and even gave a reading myself there last year. I consider myself an Elliott Bay fan. Yet I realized that my own evolving habits are contributing to the store's crisis.

In this recession, I have dialed back my book buying. I go to Pioneer Square much less frequently: There are too many tourists and too many panhandlers. Plus, some of my favorite Square bookstores, such as David Ishii Bookseller and M. Taylor Bowie Bookseller, have closed (luckily Wessel and Lieberman Booksellers survives). And then there's Amazon. Corporate and obnoxious as it is, I frequently buy new and used books from Amazon and have them conveniently shipped to my apartment door. I also browse emails from independent dealers. The fact is, in the 21st century, a book addict doesn't have to search musty shelves — books and bookstores come to you.

That's not to say I don't go to bookstores anymore. I do. I recognize what good bookstores can bring to a community, and many places have them.

I think of Bellingham's Village Books or Spokane's Auntie's, and Elliott Bay. They all have strong personalities and are places where you're likely to discover books you've never heard of. My favorite shelves in bookstores tend to be those that hold the staff recommendations. One of the best parts of bookstore browsing, somewhat ironically, is this kind of word-of-mouth — booksellers telling customers about good reads.

As part of a move to stay alive, Elliott Bay has left Pioneer Square for Capitol Hill, where its new store opened its doors today (April 14) and will hold a block party from 4 to 7 pm on Thursday (April 15). It'll have a new lease and a new store in an old warehouse with wooden beams and skylights. It'll be in the denser Pike-Pine corridor, with both better parking and access to nearby residential customers, not to mention Seattle University students and the literary types attracted to places like nearby Hugo House. It may be as much of a retail anchor as it was for Pioneer Square's '70s renaissance. But it will not be shedding challenges with the move. This is still a tough time in which to make a bookstore work.

The good news is that Seattle continues to be ranked at the top of the "America's most literate cities" list — in 2009, we regained the No. 1 spot overall. And Seattle was ranked 2nd (behind San Francisco) for having the most bookstores. But being literate is not defined by bookstores alone, according to John W. Miller, who compiles the list at Central Connecticut State University. Being "literate" includes having abundant libraries, publishers, education levels, and Internet resources. Seattle is a city where a librarian, Nancy Pearl, is a best-selling author with her own action figure, so I think it's a safe bet that our enthusiasm for being literate doesn't hinge on Elliott Bay alone.

The bad news for Elliott Bay is that the 21st century is leading literacy away from the bookstore. Amazon changed book retailing; now it's reinventing the book itself with its e-book reader Kindle, making it possible to browse and buy "books" cheaply and wirelessly. In 2009, Amazon announced that it had downloaded more e-books than it had sold printed books, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told Newsweek that he thought the ink-on-paper book would go away. Bezos, who hopes to be the e-book's Gutenberg, said, "No technology, not even one as elegant as the book, lasts forever."


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Wed, Apr 14, 8:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Yet vinyl is experiencing a resurgence. It may no longer be the dominant form of music distribution, yet most people who want it can get it, and it's selling better than it has in years. (Record Store Day is this Saturday, April 17, by the way.) And the LP only just passed its 60th birthday. Books are quite a bit older and more ingrained in our culture and civilization. They, too, may cease to be the dominant form of text distribution — but I don't think bibliophiles will be suffering from withdrawal. Unfortunately, many bookstores now in existence may indeed go away — but I wouldn't be surprised if Elliott Bay and the U Bookstore and others like them outlasted Borders and Barnes & Noble, just as we still have Silver Platters, Easy Street, and Sonic Boom, but no longer have Tower and The Wherehouse.

(I must admit to having contributed to this too — I always preferred used books and remainders when I could get my hands on them, and acquired so many free books [and albums] during my time as an Amazon.com editor that I could probably not acquire another book for a decade and still be well-supplied with new reading material. Indeed, if you graphed my spending on media during the last decade, the decline would be rather shocking. The free books from Amazon Vine don't help the local bookstores, either. But I am trying to change my shopping habits.)

Posted Wed, Apr 14, 9:12 p.m. Inappropriate

I don't think print will become extinct: old technologies rarely go away. If they did, we wouldn't have cops on bikes and horses. The medical community has also found uses for leeches! One great service the Internet has provided is a better way to get used books into the hands of buyers. Not only is it easier to find any book (the old bookstore "book search" methods were slow, and inefficient to the point of being ridiculous) but it has driven down prices as many "rare" books were found to be common. Books once unobtainable in America were suddenly inventoried and gettable from English attics, etc. This has made life tough for some Ye Olde Booke Dealers, but has been a boon for bibliomaniacs with Paypal.

In a few cases, some once-rare-but-not-valuable books have gained more interest online, and competition for them has increased demand and prices. I know of one case where an oddball volume that, when found, once sold in bookstores for from $35 to $100 yet is now routinely listed in the $300 to $1,000 range. Added Internet visibility can have a downside: it's much harder to find cheap copies because sellers can track and raise prices easier and they're less likely to lose stock on their shelves where a savvy bibliophile can find a hidden treasure. That said, for many books, there's more competition to sell at a lower price, and that's generally good for individual book lovers.

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »