The legendary Seattle independent bookstore

A few months back, in April, Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company moved to Capitol Hill, a trendy LGBT-friendly neighborhood east of downtown. I heard about the change from the Seattle Times and asked friends about it but no one had visited yet. The move was a surprise – Elliott Bay is a local staple, its location nearly as sacrosanct as Starbuck’s original café in Pike Place Market and Seattle’s Best Coffee down Post Alley. Furthermore, Pioneer Square has some serious history and heavy tourist traffic in the summer. Capitol Hill is a great but offers a completely different atmosphere. The move meant a shift in direction; whether for better or worse, I was determined to figure out.

Now situated on 10th Avenue between Pike and Pine, Elliott Bay occupies a vintage building (the original Ford truck service center for Seattle) and will no longer have to compete with sporting events for parking or attention. Its previous location, close to the baseball and football stadiums haunted by disappointed Mariner and Seahawk fans, always reminded me of Powell’s Books in nearby Portland, Oregon: high ceilings, worn wood floors, impossibly high bookshelves, little nooks and crannies, and – above all else – piles and piles of books. I have fond memories of the former location: I’ve been to author events, I’ve browsed the stacks for hours, and I’ve asked their staff to help me find a book I’ll love. Though the company had been in Pioneer Square for 36 years, the new location solves many of the problems which necessitated the need for change.

Thankfully, the new store doesn’t disappoint. While the old location had its charms, the new one allows for better browsing. Even though there seems to be fewer books in stock – clearly the result of a depressed economy, less consumer demand, and online competition – the space is open, airy, clean, and well-lit. Wood floors at this location too, but they are less creaky and nicely polished. At Pioneer Square, the shelves were so immense and the books so numerous, it was daunting to find anything particular; even finding the appropriate section could be challenging. Now there is a natural order and flow, the shelves clearly marked and well organized.  New books up front, employee picks and book group reads to the side. Fiction, science fiction, mystery, teen and young adult, then children’s along the south wall. Poetry, essays and graphica in the center. Local authors and books near the front by the entrance. Food and cooking section suitably just before the café entrance tucked in the back of the store. The bargain books section was similarly neat and well-organized, upstairs and in a section removed from the rest. The store is comforting, inviting, and peaceful. It’s a breath of fresh air and totally unintimidating.

Don’t get me wrong. I like a messy, cluttered, cramped bookstore just as much as any bibliophile. But every once in a while it’s nice to walk in and quickly find what I’m looking for. A brief tour through the new books section and then I locate the section which has the book I want. Perhaps this is not the effect Elliott Bay is going for; in any case, I like it. I avoid bookstores now because I know I’ll be sucked in. I need at least an hour, if not two, of free time to even enter a bookstore. I can’t help but roam the shelves and read staff recommendations. It’s a problem.

That’s why the new Elliott Bay is refreshing. They are keeping up with the times. Consumers are busy and it’s all too easy to do a fast search and purchase on Amazon. Bookstores need to attract consumers by offering experiences, not just products. To get an edge on the competition. the store continues to host fantastic events: one a week, at least, bringing in bestselling and prizewinning authors as well as hosting local author signings and book club meetings. The day I visited, Alexandra Fuller was coming in that evening to read from her latest memoir. I couldn’t stay but I sure looked longingly at their event board, wishing my stay in Seattle could last just a week or two longer. Elliott Bay manages to balance the valuable aspects of bricks-and-mortar stores like handselling and community events with the convenience offered and touted by online retailers.

The best example of this effect is the little handwritten slips of paper that appear in each section. As with the old location, the slips hang from the shelves in front of books that the employees recommend. Some are more illegible than others, but the effect is reassuring. It is clear that, at this bookstore, the staff loves books and loves reading. In the fiction section, the slips were numerous. It seemed like employees were endorsing hundreds of titles (how am I to get to them all?). Even less popular sections – nonfiction genre like Ecology, Computer Sciences, and Photography – had those little slips every couple of shelves. Clearly the staff knows its stock, from Architecture to Young Adult.

And yet sometimes those little white slips of paper were not employee recommendations. Instead, they displayed QR codes and encouraged the browsing customer to pre-order an author’s upcoming book. Browsing graphica, I scanned a shelf of the author I like. According to this neat little slip, there is a new title arriving soon. I didn’t know about it but now I’m interested; I must have it. Instant gratification meets handselling. Just scan the code with your smart phone and voila! The day Spiegelman’s Metamaus arrives at Elliott Bay, it’s yours to pick up and devour. Technology makes it possible and Elliott Bay gets your money. Independent bookstore = WINNER.

Quiet and unassuming outside, a safe haven for book lovers on the inside.

Despite the move, I don’t think the owners of Elliott Bay have much to worry about: the café alone draws in its share of customers. It is close, low, a little dim but still appropriate for reading and the seating seems warm yet private. It helps that the café boasts some of the best Seattle coffee in the city, not to mention its delicious bakery confections and hearty soups. A quiet place for getting work done or relaxing with a newly purchased book.  In fact, at the old location, the original EBC café lives on. Coffee sells in Seattle – what I can say? And, like in Ithaca, local businesses manage to keep up well with big box stores.

No liquidation, no shuttered windows. I say, in this changing market, the move was a success.


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