Tuesday, June 29, 2010

back to the bookstore future in seattle

I have a suggestion for all my friends and colleagues who are losing sleep over the future of the book: get out here to Seattle and pay a visit to Elliott Bay Book Company’s new store in Capitol Hill.

Reluctantly forced to move by real estate issues from the literary outpost it staked out in Pioneer Square decades ago, there was plenty of consternation over whether such an idiosyncratic shrine to independent bookselling could re-invent itself in a new location.

The funky, historic old downtown quarter, with its interesting mix of international tourists, baseball fans, and homegrown winos, seemed an organic part of the bookstore’s identity. How would it fare in an actual neighborhood- a lively mix of students, professionals, and young families, with a thriving gay and lesbian vibe?

The physical character of Elliott Bay seemed unique, essential, and irreproducible. How on earth could the antique wood floors, which sounded like creeping through your grandmother’s attic, ever be replicated? Or the signature weathered bookshelves, which had literally supported thirty-five years of changing Pioneer Square reading tastes? And even if recreating these essential features two miles away were possible, was it desirable? Wouldn’t the small business consultant gurus advise seizing the opportunity to change and modernize?

But friends of the store can put the nail-biting on pause and move on to other things to worry about.

“Jaw-dropping” is one of those overused phrases- really, how often does your jaw actually drop even when seeing something great? But mine did when I walked through the doors of the Tenth Avenue store for the first time last week. I felt as if I were seeing the perfect bookstore. And after a few hours and a few visits, I believe by so rigorously honoring its own history it may be creating a prototype for the bookstore of the future.

I jotted down ten things that really worked for me. You may find others.

1. The book inventory is top drawer. It will tweak and evolve (it always does in good bookstores!) but the essential core strengths we always loved about the Pioneer Square location are still here. And showcased in a way that wasn’t possible there.

2. The staff are still great. I overheard one somewhat dotty customer being led with infinite patience through the labyrinth of what to read after Stieg Larsson. There’s a tag team approach- if one bookseller can’t answer, someone else can. And everyone who works there seems, I don’t know, interesting- like they probably spent their day off performing, creating, writing or working for social justice.

3. The layout, which sprawls across the floor of an old Ford Motor repair facility, is wonderfully airy and spacious. No more constantly having people brush past your butt when you’re trying to read the Staff Recommends cards.

4. Wood is everywhere, and yes, the floors creak in a really satisfying way.

5. The gorgeous high ceilings, wood beams and skylights are lovely.

6. Those front windows, a wall of them- amazing, and what a surprise. They look great from the outside but from inside, flush with gray Seattle morning light, they are dazzling. They give the whole space a sort of Bauhaus feel that seems perfect. Bookstore as 21st century creative workshop!

7. The immediate neighbors couldn’t be better and are definitely worth a visit (or two) - the northwest music chain Everyday Music is adjacent to the store, and one door down is my favorite restaurant/bar in all of Seattle, Oddfellows. I’m not sure who or what the Oddfellows were, but I guess it was something like the Masons. They left these gorgeous old buildings, and this one has been restored with great charm. And the food is tasty from breakfast through late at night.

8. The broader neighborhood, as mentioned above, is a fascinating mix, and only minutes from downtown.

9. And the even broader community- Seattle- is of course a bewitching place. It’s especially satisfying to find a store like Elliott Bay situated in the belly of the online beast which has wreaked so much havoc in the book community.

10. Rick Simonson, book buyer, events originator, passionate lover of international fiction, and overall sage, is the glue that holds it all together. He’s a walking testament to the power of an institutional memory in bookselling, though he’s never a slave to track. (selecting new titles based on sales history of similar old ones.) He’s a taste-maker in the best sense, trusting his own instincts and reading interests while knowing how to interpret the notoriously cryptic tea leaves left by customers. Nobody I can think of in bookselling has a stronger commitment to all of the working parts that make up a successful book- the publisher, the author, the store, the reader- and is more adept at stitching them together.

Understandably, general booksellers across the country are in a panic about what the future holds for our business. (So are publishers!). I can’t really fault a bookseller for rushing to embrace new technologies before they understand them, or for demanding a slice of the e-book pie, or for giving up valuable floor space in their stores for Rube Goldberg-like printing contraptions. We have to try everything.

But when I see a successful re-invention like the new Elliott Bay, I feel more confident that the great bookstore of the next 20 or 30 years may look a lot like the great bookstore of today and yesterday. Sticking to publishing and selling printed books in “great good places” as a business plan is not necessarily a form of denial.

End of love letter.

But check it out.

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