American Comebacks: Elliott Bay Book Co.

Peter Aaron felt stunned when the doors closed for the last time at the Elliott Bay Book Co. in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square. Thirty-six years of history were ending for the independent bookshop, one of the city’s most beloved institutions.

The last customer left and the lock gave a final click. Employees—also numbering 36—broke out the champagne. And then, they got to work.

Rather than close the doors for good, owner Aaron was betting the failing store would thrive at a new location.

Every one of Elliott Bay’s 175,000 books was packed and trucked a mile and a half up the hill to a new storefront on the outskirts of Seattle’s growing Capitol Hill neighborhood. Every one of the tall wooden bookcases was disassembled, moved and rebuilt to the configurations of the new building, a former Ford dealership built in 1918.

“It was very risky,” Aaron says. Could any new location retain the character and warmth that made the original shop a landmark? Aaron saw no choice.

Bookstores are more than just businesses in lit-loving Seattle, regularly named in studies among the country’s best-read cities. Independent bookstores are gathering places and virtual book clubs, as well, where bibliophiles come to hear favorite authors speak and to acquire new favorites, where they can count on employees to offer on-target recommendations. Elliott Bay did all this on a mega-scale, the rare indie shop capable of providing both a personal touch and a deep, well-stocked inventory.

Appropriately for a coffee-crazed town, it even had an upgraded café, run by Seattle star chef Tamara Murphy, serving coffee from Fonte, one of the city’s most discerning micro-roasters. The store was a tourist attraction in its own right as well as a touchstone for locals.

Yet it had been clear for some time to Aaron that the 15,000-square-foot store had to move or die. Sales had slipped as perceptions grew that Pioneer Square was no longer safe; the neighborhood had changed. No one shopped at night unless they were headed to bars or nightclubs. Day or night, finding street-only parking was a nightmare. Vagrants and pigeons at times outnumbered window-shoppers and tourists.

Occasionally Aaron would look at other sites. “I’d come back to the store, and I’d walk in and look around, and say ‘No, you can’t do it. The bookstore can’t be any other place than where it is.’ ”

Then the recession hit, and the drop in sales turned to a dive. Aaron maxed out a line of credit to keep the store afloat. His five-year lease came up for renewal. It was decision time.

But how could he duplicate a store that was beloved for its ambiance, for creaky wooden floors and intangible warmth? “Trying to precisely imitate it just would not have worked,” he says.

To succeed, Aaron sought a neighborhood with dense population that was “attractive and vibrant and showed every sign of staying that way or continuing to improve.”

The Ford building could be remodeled to evoke the old location’s ambiance surprisingly well. It helped that it had the same fir-planked floors that gave Elliott Bay its trademark creak, and a gorgeous wood-beamed ceiling. Uncovering old skylights and installing new ones made it even better. “I never knew how dark and dingy the old store was until we got here and actually saw what it’s like to have light,” Aaron says. A stained-glass window spelling out the store’s name moved from the old storefront to the new.

But it took much more to make a successful move than simply relocating. During the two-week period following the old store’s closing in March 2010 and the opening at the new location, Aaron spread the word through the store’s website, through new media offshoots like Facebook and Twitter, and through plain word-of-mouth. Publicity from traditional media helped too.

From the first day, customers said Aaron had transplanted the store’s soul along with its contents, and they shopped accordingly. He had figured he needed a 10 percent rise in sales to keep the business viable. Sales have held at a better level, up 15 to 20 percent compared to the previous year.

Customers who worked downtown or stopped by on their way to the ferry dock no longer find the store as convenient. But Aaron’s heartened by the vast percentage of old customers he continues to see—and the new ones who have come, taking advantage of the underground parking lot and vibrant neighborhood scene.

The store’s roughly 500 author readings per year are a key part of its business and its attraction, and attendance has improved since the move. Even the tiniest, most intimate author readings, which might once have seen five or six attendees, now draw 15 to 20. Large ones pack the hall to standing-room only.

The crew is stocking books and sections that never sold well before. The shelf of Agatha Christie mysteries swelled when senior citizens started revisiting the store. The lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender section boomed in the gay-friendly neighborhood. Aaron eliminated the used-book section, a labor-intensive area “we were not particularly good at,” but enlarged the popular remainders section.

All 36 employees from the old store moved to the new location. That number now feels luxuriant despite the increased business, Aaron says, because the new space, about 1,000 feet smaller, is more efficient to operate. “It was designed and built, as opposed to evolved into.”

The in-store café made the move as well. Now anyone can toast the store’s rejuvenation with a glass of wine accompanied by an artisan cheese plate.

It would have been easy to simply close the Pioneer Square doors and walk away, to become one more statistic in the national decline of independent bookstores. But the work is too gratifying, Aaron says.

“When it came right down to it, I just thought that the store was too valuable to the community, too important to the literary life here, for it to go away.”

In another inspiring American comeback store, learn how Wylen Flenner came back from a   vicious tornado leveling his town.

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