In the last two months, I've read a lot of speculation—some thoughtful, some painfully maudlin—about what Elliott Bay Book Company's move from Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill will mean. Now that store owner Peter Aaron exclusively revealed to The Stranger that the move is official, it's time to start looking at the situation.
(Before I get started on this, let me include a disclaimer: I worked for Elliott Bay for 8 years starting in 2000—I worked as a night manager and fiction buyer, and I started the graphic novel section—before becoming books editor here at The Stranger.)
Crappy articles about bookstores (including the L.A. Times story I linked to above) do their best to equate bookstores to the past. It's easier for reporters to write about dusty bookshelves giving way under the onslaught of shiny new technology, and booksellers looking sad as they face the future. But books will always be around in one form or another, and the story we should be telling is how books are transitioning from the past to the future—and make no mistake, books are in perhaps their most transitional state since they were first created.
The story of Elliott Bay moving isn't a story about creaky floors—Aaron practically guarantees in his letter that the new space, a space with its own history and character, will have creaky floors. It's a story about a small business, a small business beloved by the city of Seattle, trying to find its way in the 21st century. Simply moving to Capitol Hill won't be enough to save Elliott Bay, and hopefully Aaron realizes that. Elliott Bay has to remind Seattle that we are a city that loves books. We are the most literate city in America. I think we have more talented writers here than anywhere else in America. We for sure have the best bookstores and libraries in America. But sometimes you take things for granted, and that forgetfulness is what Elliott Bay has to fight through, to remind us why Seattle loves books, why Seattle is a city built on books.
Elliott Bay has always been the heart of Seattle's literary community, and that heart doesn't have so much to do with the space the store is in. Great people have been inside the current Elliott Bay space at 101 South Main Street—Kurt Vonnegut, Bill Clinton, Gore Vidal, Annie Liebowitz, and literally thousands more—and that space deserves its respect. It will get its respect, and its story will be told. But Elliott Bay Book Company is the place that Tom Robbins used to call the "freewheeling literary funhouse," a place where poets would get together and have too many glasses of wine and fight about nothing at all. It was where Matthew Stadler would host his marvelous salons with Clear Cut Press authors and stay way too late talking about books and ideas. It was where Ryan Boudinot wrote the stories that became his collection The Littlest Hitler, where Matt Ruff set one of his finest novels, where authors get choked up because they're reading on the stage that they've seen so many authors read.
During my 8 years at Elliott Bay Book Company, I watched as the city continued to abandon Pioneer Square. They didn't provide basic amenities like zone parking permits for the urban pioneers who tried to live there, they didn't provide police protection for people who dared to visit there after dark. And the Pioneer Square Community Association didn't do anything to make Pioneer Square valuable for Elliott Bay. They've had two months of rumors to make the bookstore feel more welcome and wanted. What's the only thing they offered? New banners on the streetlights. Talk about a joke.
The only things that Pioneer Square had to offer Elliott Bay Book Company—with a notable exception that I'll get to in a minute—was the sporting events (which had very little financial impact—baseball games raised sales a little bit, football games dropped sales a little bit) and the tourism (which increased foot traffic a great deal, but tourists didn't affect sales much at all, either).
But Elliott Bay's biggest asset—its literary community—was slowly strangled by Pioneer Square. Dutch Ned's, the home of the Poetry Slam for years—closed. Interesting events disappeared. The only lingering sign of that community is the great bookstores that still remain in Pioneer Square—Wessel & Lieberman, Seattle Mystery Bookshop, Newberry's, the Globe Bookstore—and if the city has any sense, it will do its best to keep those businesses happy, before Pioneer Square really does consist of a bunch of bars. The way the city has shamefully abandoned Pioneer Square is a tragedy, and it's a story that will be told.
Elliott Bay needs to be in a community where people actually live, near bars where writers write and cafes where readers read. With Pilot Books and Twice Sold Tales and Spine and Crown books nearby, Capitol Hill is already making a huge leap toward becoming the Book District that Pioneer Square used to be. That's why this is a great and necessary move for Elliott Bay Book Company. And that's why this story is about growth and transition, about an important part of literary culture in Seattle getting the shot in the arm that it needs, and not about the loss of a space. This is a great step forward for the city, for literature in Seattle, and for the bookstore.