Elliott Bay is Just Not That Into Me

By Heidi Broadhead December 11, 2009


I am a fool. Even though my politics skew pretty far to the left, I've always had this belief that I could make capitalism work for me, work for the good. I believed that if I put my dollars in the right places—in the stores of my neighborhood, for example—then those businesses would thrive and I would get something in return. A place to hang out and have a yummy cup of coffee. Until recently, I've felt lucky that one of those places happened to be a world-famous bookstore in my neighborhood, Elliott Bay.

On Saturday, after nearly two months of silence on the rumors of their move to Capitol Hill, owner Peter Aaron did an interview with neighborhood blog The New Pioneer Square, which reported:
"Aaron will be making a decision in a few weeks about whether they’ll stay, close, or move. The chances of them staying are slim; there is too much change that needs to happen in this neighborhood for them to stay."

He said that he would be meeting with the City's Office of Economic Development, implying that there may be some concessions (money? parking spots?) that could change the course of this move. [And don't even talk about parking. I don't know if you've been to Pioneer Square lately, but there's parking everywhere, in lots and on the street. This place is desolate.]

Five days later, though, Paul Constant at the Stranger broke the news that "the bookstore will close its Pioneer Square location 'probably sometime in February' and reoopen 'probably mid-March' after two weeks of moving books and fixtures to the new location ... 1521 10th Avenue, right next to Oddfellow's Hall between Pike and Pine."

What? If the timing is true, they've known for a while (months?) that they were moving, because it takes time to negotiate commercial leases, secure financing, and hire contractors.

The Seattle Times reported that the store has seen a spike in sales in the last few months. Could it be possible that the spike came from downtown shoppers (like me, by the way) who were rallying with our consumer dollars to keep Elliott Bay from moving?

We all know that Pioneer Square has real problems. But to hear Aaron blame Pioneer Square for his store's problems is perturbing when an equal problem is the fact that the bookselling environment is changing—and they're not keeping up with it.

They've let their store atrophy in many ways, and they're counting on general Seattle-love, and indie-bookstore love, and, frankly, guilt, to keep them going. They are a gigantic, generalist bookstore. As Michael Lieberman so insightfully pointed out when the rumors first emerged, the store has no viable online presence or social media strategy. The children's section is a mess. The specialized sections are not specialized enough for specialists and too broad and intimidating for general visitors. They don't cater to customers' needs in any particular way other than being a Seattle institution. Indie bookstores like Elliott Bay are failing because they operate on a threat—or worse, charity—mentality: Buy more of our books, more than you can afford, or we'll be gone. Subsidize our business simply because you love us. And we're happy to do that. Because we do love them. I've bought a lot of their books, regularly, at full price, and they are still leaving my neighborhood. Because it isn't enough.

Wessel and Lieberman and Seattle Mystery Bookshop—two other Pioneer Square bookstores—will likely be fine because they found their niche and they cater very heavily to their customers in very specific ways. Elliott Bay always makes us go to their old brick-and-mortar shop, and that isn't special in any way once they move out of their great historic space.

That's not to say that they can't create new things about the store that will make it worth a special trip. Absolutely the best thing about this move is that they can no longer rely on nostalgia and tourism to stay afloat. My hope for Elliott Bay is that they are able to move beyond that charity mentality (a mentality, by the way, that was also not sufficient to support Bailey-Coy) and that they can find a niche as a community hub without losing too many of the tourist and suburban shoppers. (Despite speculation that tourists will drive up the hill and to park at the new Elliott Bay, that seems very unlikely. What would they be going there for? Recommendations? People don't need to go to a bookstore to get recommendations any more.)

And, irritated as I've been by how the rumors of the store moving have morphed into a massive PR campaign for their new store, they may have actually helped Pioneer Square by threatening to leave, and now, by leaving. They're pulling up the anchor of old Pioneer Square, and drawing a lot of attention to it in the process. Pioneer Square is in serious trouble, but the neighborhood is going to come back. The viaduct will come down and downtown will be revitalized. Too bad Elliott Bay won't be here with us to see it.

As far as my voting consumer dollars, I am still a fool. I've always done my holiday shopping at Elliott Bay. But this holiday season, I'll be a fool for Pilot Books, Open Books, Wessel and Lieberman, and Secret Garden. Spread it out a bit. Goodbye, Elliott Bay. Good luck. Hope to see you on Twitter soon.
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