I haven't been in the new Elliott Bay Book Co. on Capitol Hill yet, but the buzz is good. I have, however, visited a place in the Elliott Bay saga that's quite fascinating: the now vacated bookstore space in Pioneer Square.
For decades, Elliott Bay has been a cornerstone of the Pioneer Square revival, and a national treasure. When the national Main Street program staff was in Seattle recently, they said one of the first things they would do here, as everywhere they work, is make a list of the six or seven key retailers the neighborhood would need to keep.
Elliott Bay would have been number one on everyone's list, a shop popular with locals and tourists, a symbol of the city's proud status as one of America's most literate towns. But Elliott Bay has left the Square, and one bright spot for those who remain is that the store's departure highlighted the need to get the Square back on track, even without its signature tenant.
In the old Elliott Bay store, there are no throngs of customers, no buzz of new energy. The Elliott Bay Cafe remains open downstairs and will supply grub to the new Pike-Pine shop, but the vast bookstore space we knew is empty, and bigger than it seemed. The bookshelves are a kind of wooden skeleton inside the vast interior of the historic Globe Building, but most of the life has left the leviathan. The familiar front book counter remains, stripped of the lively, intelligent staffers. As you wander under the familiar brick archways you can ponder the ephemeral nature of bookstores: A gloomy Romantic might see it as a kind of "Ozymandias" for the life of the mind, "boundless and bare." It feels a bit like an old barn, albeit a rambling one.
More hopeful sorts see potential. Pioneer Square's pioneer revivalists, the shopkeepers and architects and preservationists who saved the Square from decay in the '60 and '70s, homesteaded it through tough times. And the Globe Building now offers the same potential it offered then: for someone to step forward and make something of it. Last week, a co-owner of the former Elliott Bay space, Grant Jones, invited some folks to take a look at newly emptied space and brainstorm.
A couple of things to keep in mind. One is that the Globe Building is an amazing building (actually two buildings, joined together years ago), attractive and solid, and it anchors one of the key corners in the Square, First and Main. Before it was built in 1891, the trees on it were cut and turned into lumber by Henry Yesler's Skid Road mill, the wood that built the new Seattle. Once cleared, it was the site of the city's first hospital, run by the legendary David "Doc" Maynard. It was also the place where our namesake Chief Seattle sat for his portrait. How much deeper can Seattle roots go?
Built as a commercial building after the great fire it has housed a saloon, a hotel (The Globe), a drug company, a gold mining company, a 1920s bootlegging operation (that once blew up) and a quilt factory. The terms "seamstress" used to be euphemism for Pioneer Square prostitute, but the quilting company really did employ people who sewed, and Jones says the upper floods are reinforced because of the heavy machines they used.
Today it's office space. The architect, by the way, was a descendant of Daniel Boone. So the Globe (originally called the Marshall-Walker Building) is a survivor, as the Square's historic building have had to be, and an adaptable one.
Walking through it with a sharp-eyed group, the big spaces and high ceilings are striking. Without books, the volume of the building seems to offer potential. It could house something grand. Like what? A gallery for large sculptures and paintings? A smallish concert space? A place for theater groups? A venue for special events, exhibits and gatherings? But the Globe is also two joined buildings and there are lots of interior rooms.
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