The old Elliott Bay Book Co. interior. Credit: Flickr
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.
Upstairs would make a perfect spot for a new publication (being a former magazine and newspaper editor, I always look at spaces that way). The Globe spaces could also be redone as a mall-like market warren for food vendors, artists or artisans. Or maybe a gathering spot for the Square’s emerging game developers, a group seeded during the dot-com boom of the late ’90s.
The Globe Building feels like it ought to be the Square’s front room. Elliott Bay Books expanded as the years went by and gobbled up space. Some could be reconnected with the Square. The old used books section, for example, could host a restaurant or cafe reconnected to the alley behind it (as we reconsider alleyways) through currently blocked windows.
There are multiple entrances along First, but somehow the Globe feels like it could be better opened to the street. As wonderful as the bookstore was, there is a lot more that could be done, and I feel like more people should take a look at it. It could be a flagship for somebody. Someone in our group ventured it was just the type of space that could appeal to Starbucks or a competitor looking to make a statement.
Grant Jones owns the building with his business partner and co-founder of Jones & Jones Architects, Ilze Jones. They have long helped shape the Square, including the design for the original Occidental Park. Grant Jones is convinced that the answer for the Globe Building lies within Pioneer Square, not in the mind of some downtown commercial real estate booster. “Pioneer Square has always defined itself. When you live here awhile you realize people outside have deep-set perceptions; they have to squint through eyes that are pretty opaque to fresh realities of the moment,” he says.
The key is inventiveness on the part of people who get the place, are attracted to its history and feel, not intimidated by what they’ve heard. He explains: “Those of us who have settled here or pioneered unique businesses in Pioneer Square, know it’s a safe, abiding and constantly adapting neighborhood. Although we have learned not to look to the outside for answers, we are constantly open to change and welcome new mutations.
“We just aren’t interested in copying generic successes, you know, like repetitively successful franchises. And when previously unique uses become old and boring, we look for new ways to mutate. Commercial ‘comparables’ don’t fit down here, but new inventions do.”
So, Jones is placing his confidence in the belief that something will emerge for the space that defines the Square’s opportunities: one of a kind, unpredictable. “Good ideas come out when you’re least expecting them. You learn to be patient and wait. Sometimes they just come out nowhere. … [b]ut usually they come out of the woodwork — out of the place, out of the characters here, and those kind souls who know us or roam among us frequently enough to be locals, or those oldtimers who come back home.”
Elliott Bay is gone, but the Globe is used to change, having survived fires and quakes and explosions and the whims of markets. One of the great things about the Square and its parts: they can endure and adapt, if we let them. This is the perfect home for something unknown that wants to be woven into Seattle’s densest cultural fabric.
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