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A vote for neighborhood bookstores, third places and diversity

"The people who were buying in Wallingford and Fremont 10 to 15 years ago are there now. Credit: Eric Scigliano

For more than a decade two retail truisms have prevailed: Paper-and-mortar bookstores, especially cozy, community-oriented, locally owned bookstores, are toast in the Amazon age. And Southeast Seattle is doomed to be a shopping desert, shunned by major retailers no matter how many well-heeled consumers it has because it also has lots of not-so-well-heeled residents. And so, for nearly two years following the closure of Columbia City’s Bookworm Exchange (which sold mostly used books), this entire Seattle quadrant had not a single general-interest bookstore.

No wonder residents both cheered and shuddered when PCC Natural Markets announced that it would relocate its undersized, overperforming store in Seward Park to a site three times as large in Columbia City. Who would fill the old space? Would it languish like the decrepit adjacent property, which PCC had tried and failed to acquire?

As a neighborhood hub and bobo bastion, the store seemed irreplaceable. It’s the only place in Southeast Seattle that Real Change vendors regularly stake out. Real-estate agents trumpet the distance to it in their listings. Once again, it seemed, Columbia City, the beneficiary of decades of city support and historic-preservation credits, had sucked the oxygen out of neighboring districts.

Now the tale’s taken a differen turn — a sign of changing fortunes for Southeast Seattle and local bookstores. A new buyer/occupant has appeared whose business strategy is, if anything, even more neighborhood-focused than PCC’s. When PCC vacates the 7,200-square-foot store, probably in mid-July, sawing and hammering will begin on the shelves, woodsy paneling and café tables for the third of Ron Sher’s Third Place bookstores.

Sher, who famously rescued Elliott Bay Books and turned Bellevue’s ailing Crossroads mall into a community crossroads, has made a career out of putting “third place” principles into commercial practice. The Seward Park store will hew to that model. In particular, says Third Place Books managing partner Robert Sindelar, it will follow the template of the company’s second bookstore, which opened in 2002 in the original PCC store’s quarters in Ravenna.

This second succession from PCC to Third Place Books is no coincidence, Sindelar explains. “I think that’s what caused them to reach out to us. PCC is a great organization, very concerned about legacy. They didn’t want to just sell to anybody.”

As it happened, Sindelar and Sher’s company had been casting around for the better part of a year for the site of their next store. They’d narrowed their focus to two areas: Southeast and West Seattle.

National retailers such as Trader Joe’s and Target have favored West Seattle and bypassed Southeast Seattle because, according to real-estate marketers, of its vast income and ethnic diversity and subsidized housing stock. Was Third Place Books fazed by those indicators? “Absolutely not,” says Sindelar. “The educational levels are there, there’s great diversity, it’s highly multigenerational. Those are the kinds of things we look for.

“The whole South End has been growing and changing so much in the past few years. The people who were buying houses in Wallingford and Fremont 10 to 15 years ago are buying down there now.”

And eating, drinking and shopping there too. A half-mile to the west, Hillman City, Columbia City’s ragged stepsister, is undergoing a retail renaissance, led by a popular brew pub (Washington’s only women-owned and -operated one), coffeehouse, roast-chicken buffet, bar, pet-food store and “Collaboratory” incubator space at one end and bootstrapping East African boutiques, restaurants and electronics shops at the other.  

But isn’t starting a bookstore anywhere a quixotic venture? Sindelar insists not. “Our experience in bookstores is very different, especially in the Ravenna store, which has done very well.” Yes, that store enjoyed a big pop when Barnes & Noble closed in nearby University Village three years ago, “but we’ve had steady growth ever since then. With the big decrease in bookstores in the world, not just in Seattle, we see people almost doubling down on their commitment to them.”

As in Ravenna, so in Seward Park? Southeast Seattle never had a Barnes & Noble, but Third Place Books won’t have the turf all to itself. Last summer, affirming the prospects of underdog businesses and underdog neighborhoods, Columbia City’s shuttered Bookworm Exchange reopened — in Hillman City.

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