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.
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The Kindle electronic reader. (Amazon)

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.

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'ꀙs 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."

Here I have to differentiate between the future for book lovers and for readers. Book lovers are likely in for very tough times as bookstores struggle and publishers abandon the form, in the way record companies shed vinyl. Meanwhile, a new generation of readers will accept electronic tablets and other new forms of book buying as business as usual (if you doubt, just watch the way a toddler takes to an iPhone). Tough for the Elliott Bays, but voracious readers will still find plenty to feed on.

This essay first appeared in Seattle Magazine's April issue.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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