Elliott Bay Book Companys owner Peter Aaron says there is a small group of 3-5 people on a given day in this cavernous space, practicing abundant social distancing and fulfilling online orders.
Elliott Bay Book Company is closed to foot traffic, but there's a group of 3-5 employees on a given day in this cavernous space, fulfilling online orders while socially distancing. Courtesy of Elliott Bay Book Co.

Indie bookstores in Seattle like Elliott Bay Book Company, University Book Store, Third Place Books, Queen Anne Book Company, and others have sold books through their websites for years.

But these stores are so deeply embedded into the character of their neighborhoods, and so deeply associated with in-store events and in-person relationships with booksellers, that many customers don't think of them as online bookstores.

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Until now.

Jenn Risko, publisher and co-founder of Shelf Awareness, the hugely popular indie bookstore newsletter, says local bookstores "have this tiny moment when Amazon has deprioritized books. We have a tiny moment to take over market share. And I hope to god they do."

Risko says that COVID-19 has been "devastating" to bookstores industry-wide, because stay-at-home orders "hit indies in the places where they best distinguish themselves: offering a place to browse books, a third place to talk about books with people, get recommendations from real live booksellers, and hold events featuring authors—all what their biggest competitor can’t do."

But now that that biggest competitor, Amazon, has announced that it is deprioritizing book orders so that they can focus on "household staples, medical supplies," etc., indie bookstores have a chance to reassert themselves as the best and most efficient places to shop for books.

After all, if you have placed an order for a book with Amazon lately, it's probably taking forever to show up. That has never been the case before.

Elliott Bay owner Peter Aaron and reading series maestro Rick Simonson assembling curated selections of Elliott Bays inventory for customers.
Elliott Bay owner Peter Aaron and reading series maestro Rick Simonson assembling curated selections of Elliott Bay's inventory for customers. Tracy Taylor/Courtesy of Elliott Bay Book Co.

Peter Aaron, owner of Elliott Bay Book Company, says, "We are subsisting on online orders. Thank goodness there is a steady enough flow of them coming in because we have a core of extraordinarily supportive customers."

But he says the world of being a bookseller has changed dramatically. "Seven days a week, morning or night, we are data technicians glued to keyboard and mouse and computer, processing orders. I have gained great empathy for people who do this day in and day out. It's grueling and tedious. But I'm grateful that we have it to do."

He adds, "Customers have become an abstraction, other than through the messages they send us, some of which are literally tear-inducing in terms of their level of commitment to supporting us. But we're so oriented to the face-to-face encounter in the store that this mode of operating is very strange. And likewise since most of our orders are being fulfilled directly through our distributors, in most cases we're not even touching the book. So the books themselves have also become abstractions. Which as you can imagine is really bizarre for us."

One way you can get a book that has been sent to you straight from the store is to sign up for one of their subscription programs—through which you get curated selections of books by debut authors or books of poetry or even puzzles. Need a Mother's Day idea? They have a gift box for that too.

One major show of support for Elliott Bay Books has come from bestselling novelist Maria Semple, who has been giving away $50 gift certificates to the store through Twitter.

"I think it's important to remind people that there's a world outside of Amazon," says Semple, when reached by The Stranger for comment. "I want to support a local business and I want to support writers and I want to support publishers and I want to support booksellers. And I want to take a public stand on the importance of small businesses as an alternative to Amazon."

She adds, about the so-called world's largest bookstore: "They never cared about books. Books was just part of the long con. It was a small piece of the long con. That's well documented—they picked the first thing that was easy. Jeff Bezos didn't go into starting Amazon out of a love of books. It was just practical. That seemed to be the way in to selling everything to everybody," because books never expire on a warehouse shelf. "It was just a way to get a toehold into being the everything store."

Aaron of Elliott Bay, when asked about Semple's gesture of giving away gift certificates, says, "Oh, it's amazing. Bless her. That's all I can say. People are amazing. Book people are just amazing."

University Book Store, shown here a few years before the coronavirus crisis, is just a block from the University of Washington campus.
University Book Store, the biggest independent store in the city, shown here before the coronavirus crisis, is celebrating its 120th year. Christopher Frizzelle

Over in the U-District, University Book Store is uniquely positioned right now in Seattle's book community because "we're actually an essential business because we directly are connected to the University of Washington," says Pam Cady, the book shop manager. "But our CEO has chosen to be super careful of everybody's health, and mindful of other bookstores, so we've been making sure that the only thing you can do here so far is shop online."

Still, because of its designation as an "essential" business, one thing University Book Store can offer that many other stores can't is curbside pickup. "If you shop online and you want to pick up your order, you can pick it up at our dock, in the alley between the building and the parking lot. We just leave [your order] on the dock, and people can get out of their car. We don't go near them. There's no contact at all. We just started doing that this week, from 12 pm to 2 pm every day."

Wait—so how do they make sure the right person is picking up an order? "Our dock doors are open, like 20 feet away," Cady says. "We watch it. We make sure it's the right person. They call us on their cell phone, they say 'I'm here,' they stay in their car, we put it out there, and they get it."

It's worth repeating: Right now, shopping at University Book Store online is far more efficient than shopping at Amazon.

"You absolutely can get a book way quicker from us than on Amazon," Cady confirms. "I had a customer the other day who ordered a puzzle we had in stock, and we sent it the same day, and she got it the next day, and she emailed me and was like: 'Are you kidding me? I can't believe I got this puzzle already.' Now, she lives in the Seattle area. It's not like she lives in Michigan. But yeah, she got it the next day."

Robert Sindelar, managing partner of Third Place Books up in Lake Forest Park, says, "Through all this, we're very grateful for many things. I feel like we were relatively well positioned [before the crisis] because we'd been doing online sales for years. A lot of our events—those sales for years went through our website," and book sales were priced into the cost of the ticket.

"We'd started a promotion years ago pushing people to preorder titles from us, and we've been doing messaging around that, so our online sales had already increased in the last two years." So when stay-at-home was announced, "It wasn't a surprise to our customers that they could order books from Third Place Books online."

Still, Sindelar says, "We're roughly running at about 50 percent of our sales, company-wide."

Queen Anne Book Company used to get 3-5 online orders a day. Now theyre getting 25-30.
Queen Anne Book Company used to get 3-5 online orders a day. Now they're getting 25-30. Courtesy of Queen Anne Book Co.

Janis Segress, manager and co-owner of Queen Anne Book Company, says, "Our web orders have gone up dramatically. We used to get 3 to 5 orders online a day. Now we're averaging 25 to 30. All of us indies here in Seattle have website presence, but it's interesting because a lot of our regular customers before this didn't realize we had a website where they could order 24 hours a day."

As for Amazon deprioritizing books, Segress says: "We're very, very passionate that books are essential items. So yeah, you can get your books more quickly from an indie right now than from Amazon."

As for the future of this industry, Segress says, "It's a very interesting question and we're all pondering it, minute by minute."

Sindelar of Third Place Books says, "I think these stores have the best chance of surviving than almost any other physical retail sector. Before all this, what was working in retail [was the stuff that] bookstores have done the best, which is to create meaningful experiences in physical space for people."

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He adds, "Communities are reaching out to [bookstores] and missing them in a way that maybe they aren't missing other retail businesses. What does physical book retailing look like three months from now, six months from now? I have no idea. At first I thought [stay-at-home] was a pause, and the question was when will we get to un-pause? Like everyone else I was thinking we'd go back to normal, with author readings with 500 people shoulder-to-shoulder again. We're not getting back to that anytime soon, obviously. We'll get back to that eventually, but maybe it's a year or two away."

But in with all that uncertainty is a gigantic opportunity, Jenn Risko at Shelf Awareness stresses. "We have an incredibly rare opportunity here to have our indies seize more of the online book-buying market. If I had a giant pot of money, I’d spend it all on an ad campaign that would teach book buyers about this. Something like: 'Welcome to the upside down world, where right now, you can get a book faster from your local indie than you can from our hometown giant internet retailer.'"

For more information about what options Seattle-area bookstores are offering their customers during this crisis, check out this rundown The Stranger created for Independent Bookstore Day last week.

"I’d like to think we’ve never taken for granted what makes an indie bookstore special, but just in case some of us have, " Risko says, "you cannot replace a bookseller with an algorithm or by perusing a hundred online comments of folks who are perturbed that a book is about a dog instead of their beloved cat. You cannot replicate the experience of being at a live reading of an author, surrounded by like-minded souls who cherish the written word as you do. Indie bookstores galvanize two critical things: the power of books and community. And we know a whole lot of people cannot wait for them to re-open."