Now officially a middle-aged Gen-Xer, Elliott Bay Book Company has seen plenty during its fifty years in business. Tracy Taylor, the store’s longtime general manager and now a co-owner, has too many memories to recount.

She did share a few choice stories. Like the time she saw Jimmy Carter taking a disco nap before he signed books for over a thousand customers: “He was stretched out across two chairs sleeping soundly, and I thought, ‘Oh my god, it’s Jimmy Carter.’” 

Or that moment when David Sedaris, who was at the time a relatively unknown humor writer, sang the Oscar Mayer Wiener song in a Billie Holiday voice for about twenty readers who sat in rapt amazement.

And then there was the time Taylor politely asked two gun-toting protesters from the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) during the George Floyd protests if they could please move their barricades slightly so customers could pick up their curbside orders. 

“I remember pushing the barricade out of the street and they just stood there and watched me,” Taylor said. “I put on my best ‘mom’ look for them and said: I’m just going to move this and we’ll leave it there. And they were like, ‘Okay, but if the police come, we're moving it fast.’ And I was like, ‘Great!’”

On Thursday, June 29, Elliott Bay Books celebrates fifty years as the cornerstone of Seattle’s literary life, a place that put the city on the map for east coast publishers and that has served as a cozy home to readers and writers for half a century.

Taylor, who bought the store last June with co-owners Murf Hall and Joey Burgess (who are married to one another), says it’s one of the largest women-owned and queer-owned bookstores in the country. “Seattle is one of the most progressive cities–and yet still there aren’t a lot of businesses owned by women,” she lamented.

Burgess and Taylor have known each other for years, thanks to work together on the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce and the mayor’s Small Business Advisory Council. They’re also business partners who opened the wine and magazine shop Big Little News on East Pike in 2021.

For Taylor, the pandemic was a defining moment in the bookstore’s history. It wasn’t clear that after closing its doors to customers in 2020 and temporarily shifting to mail-order and curbside pickup that the store would survive. But a massive flood of support poured in as the staff filled thousands of orders, many that came with handwritten notes of love for Elliott Bay.

“Sometimes you don't see that,” said Taylor, who first started working for the store as a bookseller in 1990, and who has worked as its general manager for 23 years. “You just see the rubber bands and paper clips that hold things together on a daily basis. At that moment you could step back and realize that we are stewarding an institution in Seattle.”

That institution began in 1973, when Walter Carr opened a full-service bookstore at First Avenue and South Main Street in Pioneer Square. From the outset it was a haven for readers, a place that paid attention to the small details: hand-crafted book shelves made from old-growth cedar, overstuffed armchairs, the iconic stained glass logo near the entrance, and Seattle’s first bookstore cafe. 

It was also the first in the city to sustain a regular author reading series.

In the early 1970s, publishers didn’t send authors to tour much beyond New York City. But a young bookseller named Rick Simonson, who started working at Elliott Bay in 1976, set out to change that by making some phone calls.

“Rick really advocated for them to send authors out to the Northwest,” Taylor said. “He told them that we had literary audiences here that could support a reading series. That was something he single-handedly did.”

Simonson, who is in his 47th year at Elliott Bay as book buyer and manager of the store’s now legendary reading series, has brought a parade of literary luminaries through its doors since the first reading in 1978. In addition to ex-presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama, the store has hosted Kazuo Ishiguro, Arundhati Roy, Barry Lopez, Colson Whitehead, Terry Tempest Williams, Barbara Kingsolver, Haruki Murakami, and pretty much any prominent writer you can name. 

After being in hiding for years, Salman Rushdie, author of the Satanic Verses, gave his first post-fatwa public reading at a Seattle event in 1996 organized by Elliott Bay. 

Pico Iyer, a frequent and enthusiastic reader at the store, wrote on the occasion of its birthday that Elliott Bay is “still the most enlightened and civilized space in the writers' and readers' world.”

Taylor says she delights in those moments when a formerly unknown author such as Sedaris, who’s previously read to a small audience for the hardcover edition of their book, returns to a packed house after Elliott Bay has helped cement their popularity. 

“Maybe two people show up one year, and then their paperback comes out and we can’t fit everybody into the reading room,” she said. 

In addition to finding an ex-president in a back room, Taylor recalls the time Martin Amis was running 45 minutes late and the staff was doing everything they could think of to entertain the fidgeting audience. 

“But by the time he showed up, nobody cared because he was so amazing,” she said. “He went on for the next hour and a half. It was extraordinary.”

Amy Tan gave her first reading there. Raymond Carver and W.G. Sebald gave their final readings at Elliott Bay before their deaths. 

The store moved to its current Capitol Hill location in 2010, and it has passed through several owners over the years, including Ron Sher, who started Third Place Books, and Peter Aaron, who owned it for 22 years before selling it to Taylor, Hall, and Burgess.

For its 50th birthday, the store is staging two celebratory events. At 7 pm Thursday, June 29, former Capitol Hill booksellers Michael Coy and Karen Maeda Allman will chat about queer books and bookselling. Coy, who once co-owned Bailey/Coy Books, which closed its doors in 2009, and Allman, who was a longtime bookseller at Elliott Bay and a critical part of the former LGBTQ bookshop Red and Black Bookstore Collective, which closed in 1999, will talk about the importance of bookshops in Seattle’s queer community.

“Maybe you'd be going to a bookstore and might not want your family or your friends to know what it was you were buying,” Taylor says of the role queer bookstores once played. “There was a lot of discretion involved, a lot of care for marginalized communities who weren't quite as out as people are today.”

The second event features three children’s story times during which Elliott Bay will unveil a new play castle structure (“the former one was getting a little bit old and decrepit,” Taylor says) and will feature writers and children’s artists Toni Yuly at 1 pm, George Shannon at 2 pm, and Jessixa Bagley at 3 pm. There will be donuts from Dough Joy at the 1 pm reading.

Happy Birthday, Elliott Bay Book Company. Here’s to another fifty years and many more.