Moving On Up
Elliott Bay Is Hauling 56 Tons of Books up a Hill and into the Future
The first thing people notice, the thing they fall in love with, is the creaky wood floor. During the eight years I worked at Elliott Bay Book Company, from 2000 to 2008, new customers—students, tourists, baseball fans killing an hour before the Mariners game—were constantly telling me how much they loved the narrow fir floorboards and how they squeaked while people walked through the store's nearly 15,000-square-foot maze of towering bookshelves.
After 36 years of creaky floors, Elliott Bay is changing lodgings from Pioneer Square to 1521 10th Avenue on Capitol Hill: an old Ford truck service center built in 1918.
The new floorboards are old fir—and yes, they creak.
Peter Aaron, owner of Elliott Bay, gave me a tour of the new space last week. The sales floor is larger than the old space by a thousand feet or so and will have a cafe, probably run by Tamara Murphy of Belltown's Brasa, who runs the current Elliott Bay Cafe in Pioneer Square, though Aaron wouldn't confirm that. Aaron is installing a dedicated reading room, twice the size of Elliott Bay's current reading room, downstairs. The record store Everyday Music will move into the northwest corner of the building sometime before Elliott Bay's grand opening in March, turning the 1500 block of 10th Avenue into a paradise of browsing.
Aaron is a soft-spoken man who chooses his words with great care—he writes poetry and loves the dense, thoughtful novels of Thomas Mann. Though he wrote in a letter on Elliott Bay's website that relocating the store is "the second-to-last thing I would want to see happen" (the last, of course, would be closing the store), Aaron seems relaxed and relieved as he squeaks across the floorboards of the new location. It's been years since I've seen him laugh this easily.
Most importantly, the new location has the same comfortable, cavernous feel of the old Pioneer Square location: Huge wooden crossbeams vault across the high ceiling, and natural light pours in from five large skylights. Everywhere you look, you see the warm glow of old timber.
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Much has been written of Elliott Bay's financial woes in the last two months. When I worked for the bookstore, Elliott Bay very nearly always broke even on its budget, landing several thousand dollars above or below the break-even point. Those were tough times for bookstores, and just earning back what you spent was considered a sign of health. But the financial downturn hit in the fall of 2008, and Elliott Bay suddenly found itself tens of thousands of dollars in debt, with other loans coming due early in 2010. Aaron couldn't find a bank that would loan the store any more money. Elliott Bay would have to move or die. Aaron looked at potential locations all around town—Ballard, Wallingford, South Lake Union. One location near Third Avenue and Pike Street seemed promising, but Aaron believed downtown Seattle didn't have the nighttime foot traffic that the bookstore needed to prosper. That was when Michael Malone introduced himself.
Michael Malone is the founder of Hunters Capital LLC, a real estate development firm based a half block away from the new Elliott Bay site. He's been redeveloping historical Capitol Hill and First Hill properties like the Sorrento Hotel for over 25 years. He has a shock of white hair and a larger-than-life gravitas that makes him reminiscent of one of our earlier presidents, though he smiles and swears more than, say, John Adams.
Malone heard through a mutual friend that Elliott Bay was having financial problems, and he approached Aaron about the 10th Avenue space. Aaron, a Capitol Hill resident, knew from observation that the Pike/Pine neighborhood had gradually grown into a round-the-clock pedestrian thoroughfare, and the old brick-and-beam building appealed to his sense of himself as steward of the bookstore's history. Construction has been under way at the Capitol Hill space for the last two months, even as loans were still being approved for the relocation. "I'm betting on their success," Malone says.
Malone is definitely cutting Elliott Bay a good deal on rent. Spaces along First Avenue in Pioneer Square tend to cost $18 to $25 per square foot per year, and Pike/Pine spaces from Broadway to 14th are now going for $25 to $45 per square foot per year. Even though the Capitol Hill store is comparable in size (about a thousand feet smaller than the previous store's 20,000 feet, although Aaron attributes most of the difference to the "wasted space" of the old building's peculiarities, like the large spiral staircase in the middle of the third-floor receiving area), Aaron says the store's new rent is about the same as the old rent. Malone thinks Capitol Hill will do well for the bookstore. Even in Pioneer Square, he says, Elliott Bay is doing "3,500 transactions a week. Those are people who are not going to shop at Barnes & Noble." He expects the bookstore's business to follow it up the hill.
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Aaron only got involved with the bookstore on a financial basis (though he had been a customer for years) in 1999, when Third Place Books bought the bookstore from Elliott Bay founders Walter and Maggie Carr, who wanted to retire. Third Place Books owner Ron Scher brought Aaron into Elliott Bay as an efficiency expert—he was supposed to determine how best to fold the bookstore into the Third Place framework.
Instead, Aaron turned around and bought the bookstore from Third Place the next year, when I began working there. He's changed a great deal from his time as a money-minded financial adviser for a clothing retailer in New York City, when he wore expensive suits and was described by friends as "a shark" who never let the bottom line out of his sight. Aaron has operated the bookstore primarily as a torchbearer and an ardent fan of the idea of Elliott Bay. He always opened the bookstore's financial meetings—in which he would explain to every employee where the money was going and what he expected in the next six months—by reading a poem. He would usually lead with something by Dickinson when the numbers were average or slightly down, or a poem by Rilke when the financials were positive. (Aaron first broke out the Rilke in a summertime meeting when he brought up the idea of resuming the employee profit-sharing plan to great cheers from the staff—just before 9/11 knocked the store into a permanent flatline.)
But there's more to the bookstore than Peter Aaron. Over the last four decades, Elliott Bay Book Company has become the heart of Seattle's literary community, due in large part to the diligent work of readings coordinator Rick Simonson, who has been with the bookstore since shortly after it opened in 1979. Simonson built Elliott Bay's massive readings calendar himself—the store has averaged one and a half readings every day for decades now—and maintains it with the help of Karen Maeda Allman, formerly of the anarcho-feminist collective Red and Black Books.
Because of Simonson, thousands of literary icons have read and argued in the basement of the Pioneer Square location: Kurt Vonnegut, Bill Clinton, Gore Vidal, Annie Leibovitz, David Sedaris, Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami. Tom Robbins used to call Elliott Bay Book Company a "freewheeling literary fun house" where poets would get together and drink too many glasses of wine and fight about nothing at all. Matthew Stadler hosted his marvelous salons with Clear Cut Press there, when authors stayed way too late talking about books and ideas. Ryan Boudinot sat in the cafe on his lunch breaks from his job at Amazon.com, writing the stories that became his collection The Littlest Hitler. Matt Ruff set one of his finest novels (Set This House in Order) at Elliott Bay, where the main character, afflicted with an extreme case of multiple personality disorder, found some peace and quiet among all the books. I have seen new authors—from Chuck Palahniuk to former Elliott Bay employee Janet Brown—get choked up about reading on the stage where so many of their favorite authors have stood.
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Moving a bookstore is not easy, especially one as large as Elliott Bay. Beyond the sheer magnitude of hauling 56 tons of books two miles up a 300-foot hill, the bookstore is moving all its old cedar-wood shelves.
The move will take two weeks between February and March. Teams of employees will pull books and stack them on library carts, which they will shrink-wrap and load onto trucks. Once the old shelves are empty, a team of contractors will take them apart while a second team hauls them up the hill to the new store and reassembles them, plank by plank. Moving the bookshelves is by far the most expensive and time-consuming part of the move. Denver's Tattered Cover moved a store of similar size in about 24 hours—but none of the fixtures made the trip.
The move is a major blow to Pioneer Square, a neighborhood that has taken a number of hits in the past few years. After the one-two punch of the Mardi Gras riots and the Nisqually earthquake in February of 2001, the area surrendered to its seedy reputation. The bookstore was an anchor to a shrinking retail-shopping district (Bud's Jazz Records closed in 2008 and David Ishii, Bookseller closed in 2005), and its readings are the only year-round, after-dark activity that doesn't happen in a bar.
Malone says the two nearby stadiums, completed around the turn of the millennium, "detract" from the neighborhood's historic value, and in a letter on Elliott Bay's website, Aaron cites conflict with sporting events as a major problem (baseball games generally increase sales by a marginal amount; football games generally decrease sales by a slightly larger amount). The gigantic draw of the stadiums further damaged Pioneer Square's reputation as a parking nightmare—Aaron considers the 25 spaces beneath the new Capitol Hill store, as well as the 60 spaces in the bowl-shaped parking lot behind the Wildrose/Caffe Vita/Quinn's building, vital for the bookstore's survival.
Tina Bueche doesn't believe Pioneer Square's future is so dire. Bueche was the owner of Dutch Ned's, a neighborhood bar that hosted Seattle's Poetry Slam for many years before the Nisqually earthquake closed the space in 2001. Today she owns Synapse206, a high-fashion women's clothing store about a block and a half from Elliott Bay that has flourished for the better part of a decade. She doesn't think the move is "catastrophic" for Pioneer Square or its remaining bookstores. "It's just the new-book part of the book business that's crappy." She points out that Bailey/Coy Books just closed its 26-year-old location on Capitol Hill, while the used and rare booksellers in Pioneer Square—Wessel & Lieberman, the Globe Bookstore, and Seattle Mystery Bookshop—are all doing fine.
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Standing in the new Elliott Bay space, with workmen hammering nails into partitions and installing windows (the stained-glass logo from Elliott Bay's current location will still hang above the store's entrance; the building's exterior will be repainted from its current ghastly purple-pink to more subdued earth tones before it opens), it's easy to imagine a bright future. But unanswered questions linger.
Rumors are circulating at other Seattle bookstores that the new Elliott Bay might not carry used books. Aaron says he "hasn't decided yet," but his tour didn't include a space for a used-book counter. Aaron has always had an aesthetic aversion to used books (employees have long speculated that his legendarily acute sense of smell accounts for this). That would be a huge mistake. Elliott Bay shouldn't have a separate used-book room, as it does in the current space, but a small counter like the one at Third Place that buys a few titles and shelves them in the stacks alongside new copies, makes for a more satisfying browsing experience. Used books make money—roughly 40 percent of a new book's price is profit for a bookstore. For used books, it's more like 80 percent.
Aaron says the new store will have free Wi-Fi throughout, which is great, but the website needs a long-overdue overhaul. It's ridiculous that Elliott Bay hasn't done anything to monetize its many readings, either by webcasting them, having the authors write guest blog posts (like Seattle Mystery Bookshop and Powell's Books), and/or posting interviews with staffers. Aaron has confirmed the website will change once the bookstore becomes solvent, which could be as early as this time next year.
Everything depends on the next few months.
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Malone says, "Neighborhoods are a cultural statement." With the recent addition of the Night School literary program at the Sorrento Hotel (a reading and cultural series with music, food, and drink), the reenergized Richard Hugo House running more events than ever, and great bookstores like Pilot Books, Spine & Crown, and Twice Sold Tales within a 10-minute walk, Elliott Bay's move could herald the launch of a new literary culture based on and around Capitol Hill.
First, Elliott Bay will have to learn how to be a good neighbor. Aaron describes himself as "not a joiner," but the simple fact remains: Small businesses need to band together to survive. Elliott Bay's new, expanded children's section, for example, should include items from nearby Izilla Toys. Readings from books about music should include partnerships with Everyday Music and Sonic Boom Records. Parking should come with extra validation time so people can read their new purchases in local bars and cafes, lingering in the neighborhood the way they never did in Pioneer Square.
Elliott Bay has a chance to dust itself off and walk into the future—practically a miracle in a time when more than half of the independent bookstores in America have closed and Amazon.com, flush with Kindle money, is preparing to move onto a mammoth campus in South Lake Union and continue its assault on brick-and-mortar shops.
Elliott Bay's new neighborhood seems like it wants to embrace the bookstore as the gem that it is. Malone says he's working with the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce and a number of Pike/Pine businesses to host "a block party for Elliott Bay, to welcome them to the neighborhood."
With some luck, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.