New chapter for Elliott Bay?

Seattle's iconic Pioneer Square bookstore might move. It could also close. Tough times bring tough choices for the bookseller, and the neighborhood it has helped to revive.
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Elliott Bay Book Company in its old Pioneer Square location.

Seattle's iconic Pioneer Square bookstore might move. It could also close. Tough times bring tough choices for the bookseller, and the neighborhood it has helped to revive.

The Seattle Times is reporting that Elliott Bay Book Company is looking at moving out of Pioneer Square. The Slog reports that the possible new location for the store in on Capitol Hill. I've confirmed with an Elliott Bay source that Capitol Hill is a serious possibility.

While it would be big news for the iconic Elliott Bay to leave the Square, it would have good reasons for doing so. The store has gone through ups and downs, but has struggled in recent years, especially the last two. This is due to changes in the book business, including increased competition from the big chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders, whose Seattle stores can do more than twice Elliott Bay's business. Homegrown retailer has also changed book buyer's habits and made a huge dent in the bookstore's business and altered browser's habits.

On top of that, add the Great Recession which has hit retail business hard. Bookstores like Elliott Bay do most of their year's business in the fourth quarter — the holiday season is make-or-break. Last year, Christmas sales tanked; this year's retail projections aren't much better. Plus, an untimely snowstorm and the botched snowplowing effort last year cost stores like Elliott Bay a lot of business when they could least afford it. Small upticks in summer tourist business are not enough to make up for a slow holiday sales period. The bookstore does not have the deep pockets to keep it rolling through times like these indefinitely.

Then there are the changes in Pioneer Square itself. Elliott Bay has long represented the neighborhood's identity as not only a tourist-friendly historic district, but a place of culture. The surge of galleries and restaurants into the Square in the '70s, and the opening of Elliott Bay in 1973, were part of an urban renaissance that saw the Square as an incubator of the arts and restaurants. The dot-com boom brought some of that back in the late '90s. Over the last 40 years, it was also the site of a renewed interest in downtown living as non-artists moved into lofts to enjoy urban fizz. But Pioneer Square is troubled, and its arts-oriented identity is sliding away. And other neighborhoods have moved to compete for urban mavens.

Walk through the Square now and you'll see vacated store fronts. Earlier this year, it was called "the poster child for the recession," and criticized as being a "less than mediocre public space." The Square is still full of the homeless and shiftless. Even in broad daylight on a weekday, you can feel very unsafe walking through or on the perimeter of Occidental Park. The mix between the new energy brought by arts groups or dot-coms in a neighborhood also designated for social services has been difficult at best. Some local merchants suspect the Square is a dumping ground for problems downtown wants swept from other districts' streets.

If the blend of street life in Pioneer Square is largely the homeless, bar patrons, and seasonal tourists, add to that mix sports fans, not necessarily a book-buying crowd. Not only do sports events keep other patrons and shoppers out of the Square on game days because of traffic and parking, but one Elliott Bay employee told me that they've seen a shift in football fans over the years. There seems to be more drinking on game days now. Seahawks Sundays hurt a key retail day in the important fourth quarter for book sales. Sports stadiums might be good for bar business, but that doesn't do much for the kind of arty, creative energy Pioneer Square once pioneered downtown.

So, Elliott Bay Book Company now seems less of a retail leader than an anomaly in the Square these days, and with its lease in the current space about up, it makes sense they might look for the best deal, even if it means leaving a neighborhood where they have been an anchor tenant, even more, an anchor of neighborhood and urban aspiration.

If Elliott Bay leaves, it won't be the death knell for Pioneer Square, which has been described as "strong yet vulnerable." The neighborhood will move on, but the city should take note: The Square needs some serious attention. For Elliott Bay, moving to the Pike-Pine area of Capitol Hill could be a new lease on life. It could put them in the thick of the action for the next generation of urban development, in an area that is undertaking both a renewed emphasis on preservation and adaptation of older buildings. Density would offer the potential for more nearby customers and fewer problems trying to keep a struggling business afloat in a neighborhood that is wallowing, and that will struggle even more as work on SoDo, Waterfront, and downtown surface streets gets more fully underway. And for Pike-Pine and Capitol Hill, Elliott Bay would be a great catch, a major cultural institution that is a destination for book lovers.

The possible move to Capitol Hill would only partially be a referendum on the respective neighborhoods. It would also be a test of adaptability for the bookstore. Having stayed, and grown, in place for so many decades, it is hard to imagine replicating the character of the old in a new location, and that might not be entirely desirable. As book buyers age, yet with access to more younger readers, could Elliott Bay shed its '70s style and be at home on the Hill? Certainly it would find literary friends being near Hugo House, and Elliott Bay's own nationally recognized author readings could easily adjust to the market. But a major move would likely mean balancing a shift in identity as well as carrying on with what it does best, creating fine habitat for foraging readers.

Still, old bookstores can stumble when they move, even or perhaps especially legendary ones. Losing old customers is a problem; not reconstituting or jelling properly is another. Longtime Seattleites might remember the trials and tribulations that the old Shorey's used bookstore — once a downtown legend a la Portland's Powell's — went through in its struggle to survive, having to move its huge stock. Citizens rallied to "save" Shorey's on several occasions, but with each change, each incarnation, Shorey's seemed to lose customers and a bit of its soul. Eventually it was exiled from downtown to a location off Stone Way, then died. Shorey's challenges weren't the same as Elliott Bay's, but simply moving an icon of the book business is not without risk.

But given Elliott Bay's challenges, and Pioneer Square's, the risk of staying put could be just as fraught. The fact is, without an improvement in business and the retail climate, Elliott Bay could decline or go out of business. If it did, it would be a blow to book lovers in a city of book lovers. It is more pleasant to contemplate a Pioneer Square without Elliott Bay Book Company than to envision Seattle without Elliott Bay.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.