Book Smart

On Sunday night, Elliott Bay Book Company was crowded with current and former employees, tables draped in white, and clusters of red balloons. The history and music sections were pushed aside to make room for a live band. Just past the bargain table, I pointed to a Rolling Rock in someone's hand and asked, "How do I get one of those?" A bookseller told me, "At the information desk."

The bookstore's 30th anniversary party was referred to, in various speeches, as "a thanksgiving" and "a great reunion," and there was a lot about it that recalled high-school homecoming: the bad food, the big hair, the memories. All there was to eat was vegetarian chili and dessert. ("The spread's a struggle," one employee noted.) And the big hair, unlike in high school, belonged to the men. (It's a Northwest thing.) As for memories, Maggie Carr, wife of the store's founder, Walter Carr, remembered that 30 years ago there was no such thing as self-help books. "The biggest section," she said, "was Houseplants."

That Elliott Bay continues to exist as a business is no small thing, and is certainly something to celebrate. In a speech, soft-spoken owner Peter Aaron said, "Hopefully we'll all be back in here in 10 years to celebrate the 40th," underscoring an almost unimaginable possibility. (He's a sentimental guy but a sober businessman: Hopefully?) "On the one hand you have to be cutthroat. On the other, you have to care," said one employee, discussing the balance that Aaron, who's also a poet, strikes. "He likes to come in every day and just touch the books," said another. When I admitted to Aaron that for a long time I never realized he was the owner, explaining, "I just thought you were a bookseller," he replied, "I am."

Aaron maintains that the store's survival is "a tribute to the unique population of this city," but I think it's also a tribute to the population of his staff: Their energy is the center of the store's charm. It's an idiosyncratic spirit that was evidenced at the party in pages photocopied from the Daybook--a staff forum for notes and miscellany ("I believe yesterday may have been the high mark in our war against the rats"; "Shall we take up a collection to buy a pair of pants for Steve? It's October!")--although if you stuck around late enough you could have witnessed the energy yourself. At the start of the party the staff wore their professional faces, but the night eventually devolved into something else. To wit, one bookseller undressed down to a wife-beater and instigated round after round of drunken arm wrestling. In the ensuing rowdiness, Aaron, parodying his own seriousness, looked around at the melee and then leaned over to me and said, "You can see that we hire people for their intellect."

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