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The secret of Elliott Bay Book Co’s success

It has been reported again and again that business at Elliott Bay Book Co. has been up since moving to Capitol Hill from Pioneer Square more than a year ago. How has the bookstore succeeded as other retailers have struggled and the book industry flails?

“I can answer that in one word: People. Lots and lots of people,” owner Peter Aaron tells CHS. Aaron said monthly sales volume figures have consistently been up 15-20% compared to the store’s final year in Pioneer Square.

“It has turned out to be everything I could have hoped for,” Aaron said. When making the move to the Hill, Aaron had estimated the store would need to do at least 10 percent more in sales to make the move worthwhile. “Anything on top of that would have been beyond the bare necessity,” he said.

Early in his decision process to move the store to Capitol Hill, it looked like Elliott Bay might need more than an increase in volume. The store looked at taking out a loan through a City of Seattle Office of Economic Development program but was able to cut an affordable deal to come 10th Ave, City officials said. OED’s Karin Zaugg:

OED staff did have initial conversations with Elliott Bay Book Company, where we explained the details of our loan program to them.  The company decided not to submit a loan application.  To clarify, our potential assistance for their move to the Capitol Hill location was related to the possible loan which did not happen. OED let Elliott Bay know about the Grow Seattle Fund loan program, as well as offer OED assistance if they should need any help navigating city permitting or other technical assistance. They ended up not needing any help from OED while they did their move.

Developer Michael Malone’s move to help bring Elliott Bay to his space on 10th Ave hasn’t necessarily brought about a blossoming of independent retail in the neighborhood, however. Almost all of the new businesses brought into the Broadway Building in the months following Elliott Bay’s arrival have been national chains or franchises — including the latest, and last to fill the building coming soon.

Meanwhile, the book selling industry is the pits. Borders is closing hundreds of their massive retail stores across the country after declaring bankruptcy in February, Aaron said Elliott Bay is not impacted by many of the problems Borders faces (see this interview with Borders’ CEO for an idea of what they are facing).

“Borders made a lot of bad decisions about growth,” he said. “There’s just not room in the market for two gigantic chains of brick and mortar stores.” While Borders tries to make it through bankruptcy, Barnes & Noble has been making drastic changes, too.

“The most productive footage in the store is dedicated to selling electronic devices,” he said of B&N. “These are gigantic corporations, and their business is in enriching their shareholders.” So when the stock goes down, they respond with kneejerk reactions.

“For us, like is a lot more simple. All we have to do is pay attention to our customers,” he said. “That’s a demanding job in itself.”

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7 thoughts on “The secret of Elliott Bay Book Co’s success

  1. When EB was in Pioneer Square, my family rarely went. We now frequent it at least weekly I would say, and have shifted from buying our books from the B&N at UVillage to buying our books at Eliot Bay. It’s just anecdotal evidence I know, but I imagine that many other people are the same way. I love an independent bookseller, and the new EB feels likes it’s been in the neighborhood forever.

  2. I used to work in SODO and would drop by Elliott Bay Books every so often to buy a novel or journal. When I stopped working in SODO and EB stopped being so convenient, I tried to drop by about as often but they were slowly getting out of my way. For several years I worked near a Borders and, despite feeling a bit guilty about it, that’s where I shopped for books.

    Now both EB and I live on Capitol Hill and I am indeed happy to be able to walk over to such a classy local bookstore. I bet it doesn’t hurt that Elliott Bay Books is now incredibly close to Seattle Central Community College, a park, next door to a somewhat indie record store, surrounded by coffee shops and within easy bussing distance of Pill Hill.

    I’m glad to know that the move is working better than expected.

  3. I have no data to support this, but I suspect that a high percentage of books are bought by people who are “just browsing”. Not many people “just browse” Pioneer Square except for tourists. Some, to be sure, but not nearly as many people as who graze Capitol Hill all the time, especially that spot between Pike&Pine, and especially locals. Far more people want to find a reason to hang out and graze around Capitol Hill than do in Pioneer Square. This good news doesn’t surprise me at all. Congrats, EBB.

  4. EBB has been a wonderful addition to the neighborhood and I am so glad they are flourishing. Just wait until Light Rail and streetcar are open – even more people! I think we will continue to see a resurgence of local business in the greater Cap Hill area as a result.

    Overall, I think Cap Hill and Pike-Pine have a very low ratio of national chains to locally owned businesses. While Malone has received much criticism for the Broadway Bldg and the number of national chains there, I would argue that it is the most ideal location for these stores, across from Seattle Central (video games and cheap food seem best suited to that market). Moreover, I think it is a mix of businesses that made districts work – some people like chain stores and some don’t – and a healthy and walkable biz district has something for everyone. Personally, I am so excited to see the Farmer’s Market at SCCC now. What a great, more visible location. Doesn’t get more local than that!

  5. Parking access was one of their concerns early on, so I’m curious what kind of demand and use they’re getting from their parking garage and how that compares to their predictions.

  6. I’m very pleased with the success of EB, but I’m disappointed at the chains that filled the Broadway Building. It had such potential for interesting local businesses, and I thought it had the support of the owner/developer, Mike Malone. But I guess the problem with new development is that to recoup the costs, it has to charge the high rents that only national chains can afford. All the more reason that as a city and community, we should focus our attention and efforts on the transit development on north Broadway.

  7. Tourists buy fewer books than people who are shopping in their own neighborhood. I am really happy to see an independant bookstore succeed. I think that the future models for internet sales mean that the marginal sellers will fail and the good ones will reap increased success. Good for EBB, bad for the the likes of Walden and Borders.