It might not seem an encouraging sign when you describe the state of your business with phrases like, “We’re still alive” and “We continue to survive.” Such is the way Peter Aaron opened our interview about Elliott Bay Book Company, his iconic bookstore that marks the 40th anniversary of its founding this year. But, before you jump to any conclusions, there’s more to the story.
Let’s pick things up in 1999 when Aaron bought the independent bookstore, inheriting a literary legacy and a business model that, even then, looked destined to go the way of VHS rentals. Squeezed by big box chains, large discounters and the early rise of online sellers, the store had barely survived the three preceding years.
“Put it this way, during that three-year period, our sales volume decreased by one third,” said Aaron. “From a profitability point of view, it had gone from a comfortable business to one that was marginal.”
Nine years after the store had been featured in Newsweek as an example of successful independent bookstores, it seemed likely the next chapter for Elliott Bay Book Company would be followed by the number 7 or 11.
Since then, Amazon.com – which gobbled up market share like it was South Lake Union office space — and other online outfits have reshaped the bookselling landscape. In the U.S. last year, online retailers accounted for 44% of book purchases, up from 25% in 2010, according to industry research. This seismic industry shift has claimed large brick and mortar stores (Borders, B. Dalton, Crown) and small ones (Bailey Coy — RIP) alike.
And yet, Elliott Bay is still surviving. In fact, the business has seen “a definite improvement” in recent years, said Aaron, especially after the store relocated from its original location in Pioneer Square – where it began as Walter Carr’s one-room bookshop – to 1521 10th Ave on Capitol Hill. Aaron said the store has recovered more than half of the lost sales volume and is making a profit that is “good enough to keep us going and to pay the salaries.”
How has Elliott Bay weathered the many challenges while others have closed up shop? Rick Simonson, the senior book buyer who has been with the store for 37 years, said Elliott Bay tries to offer great customer service in a welcoming environment while staying true to the fundamental mission of “putting a book into people’s hands.”
“It’s still a matter of figuring out what books to have and what people want to know,” said Simonson. When a wholesaler comes in to pitch a book, “I’m sitting here imagining being in this neighborhood and thinking who would read this.”
Simonson said he and other buyers draw on the customer knowledge they’ve developed as they continually refresh the roughly 150,000 titles. They also rely on the opinions of employees, whose eclectic passion for the written word is on full display on a shelf near the front of the store.
Here, among dozens of staff recommendations, you’ll find a book on the science of dog behavior, Tina Fey’s book Bossypants, Maidenhair, a Russian novel that is “an intoxicating revelatory masterpiece overflowing with courage and beauty”, and Suicide Girls, a picture book that an employee described by asking, “What’s better than a naked lady?”
Answer: “A naked lady with tattoos.” When a customer entered the store last week requesting a book from a known, but not necessarily mainstream, author, a salesperson can be overheard responding immediately, “Which one would you like?”
This knowledge and love of all things literary extends to the owner.
“From my perspective, it’s not just about a return on investment,” said Aaron, who previously spent 25 years in department store retailing. “This is the only job I’ve ever had that I love doing. I love being there every day with the books, the book lovers, my employees, and our customers.”
As for the future, Aaron said it’s hard to predict where the store will be in the next year, let alone the next 40. But, he is hopeful, in large part because the business has already endured many challenging circumstances.
“We never get lulled into a sense of complacency. Just because we were around yesterday doesn’t guarantee our future. We have to work for it every day,” he said.
One thing Aaron is fairly certain of is that Elliott Bay will not shift additional resources to electronic books, even as more readers ditch print for digital.
“There’s no money to be made, at least not for a little company like us,” said Aaron. He added that his store couldn’t add any meaningful value in the digital space like it could by hosting 500 or so author events every year.
Toward the end of our interview, I ask Aaron again to assess the state of his business and the outlook for the years ahead. His enthusiasm picked up as he described the advantage of “having a real community that supports us” and the continuing development and revitalization of Capitol Hill with light rail on the way.
Rather than using words like surviving and staying alive, Aaron said, “I see it getting better and better.”
UPDATE Monday, June 24, 2013 — Elliott Bay will celebrate its fortieth anniversary this weekend with parties and a special reading on Saturday, June 29th:
JIM LYNCH, MARIA SEMPLE & RYAN BOUDINOT
Start: 06/29/2013 7:00 pm
On this, our fortieth anniversary, we celebrate the past, present and future with this evening featuring three writers who in enormously popular, nationally (and internationally) noted novels published last year, did their own form of celebrating this city we call home. Olympia writer Jim Lynch’s Truth Like the Sun (Vintage), in large part is set in a Seattle of 1962, 11 years before Elliott Bay took wing. Maria Semple gave readers the bestselling Seattle book any of us have probably ever seen, and the funniest, this side of Tom Robbins, with her present-day set Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Back Bay Books). And Ryan Boudinot, in Blueprints of the Afterlife (Grove Black Cat), gives readers a Seattle we may or may not easily recognize, one in an uncertain near future. This evening should be a fun mix of all these times—and this time, this place, which we are delighted to be here for.
Past CHS Elliott Bay Book Company coverage
- 10/18/2009 — Elliott Bay Book Co. Pike/Pine move rumor round-up
- 12/5/2009 — What might bring Elliott Bay Book Co. to Cap Hill? Parking, revitalization and streetcar
- 12/9/2009 — Elliott Bay Book Co. to make Pike/Pine home
- 12/11/2009 — The breaks: How the city might help Elliott Bay pay for its Capitol Hill move
- 12/22/2009 — Elliott Bay Book Co. Capitol Hill welcome wagon: Thoughts from Hill’s booksellers
- 1/2/2010 — Sneak Peek inside the new Elliott Bay Books
- 4/15/2010 — Elliott Bay Book Co. opening day block party celebration
- 4/15/2010 — Photos of Elliott Bay Book Co Opening
- 5/31/2010 — Elliott Bay Book Company says business booming since move to Capitol Hill
- 5/9/2011– The secret of Elliott Bay Book Co’s success
- 3/14/2013 — Elliott Bay Book Co. wants a t-shirt for its 40th birthday