Elliott Bay Book Company is not the city’s oldest bookstore — University Book Store is older, by over a half-century — but it is arguably our most iconic. Founded in 1973, Elliott Bay has changed ownership three times. The shop was founded and expanded in its original Pioneer Square location by Walter and Maggie Carr. When the Carrs retired, they sold the shop to Third Place Books owner Ron Sher in 1999. Third Place partner Peter Aaron bought the bookstore from Sher a few years later, making it fully independent once more.
In 2010, after a long decline in sales, the store moved from its original location to a Ford truck repair shop on Capitol Hill. Though many in Seattle lamented the loss of the old, sprawling space — the store had expanded outward through the years, taking up other storefronts on the same block and creating a unique, rambling feel — Aaron and Elliott Bay manager Tracy Taylor went to great lengths to make the transition as familiar as possible. The old handmade cedar bookshelves from the Pioneer Square store were dismantled and reassembled in the new space, retaining an important continuity in the visual language of the store. In the years since the move, Elliott Bay has enjoyed some of its most profitable years in the history of the business. Foot traffic on Capitol Hill has significantly shaped Elliott Bay’s new direction: the kids’ section, for instance, expanded hugely thanks to the influx of young parents visiting in the first few months after the move.
If you were to combine the experience of senior Elliott Bay staff, you’d quickly tally up a few centuries of bookselling. Elliott Bay has always celebrated its talented booksellers through an enormous Staff Recommends wall, an extensive book club program, and the staff-written Booknotes newspaper. It has gained a reputation for training some of the best booksellers in the business.
The thing that makes Elliott Bay such a nationally recognized institution, though, is the reading series. University Book Store and Third Place Books both have robust readings schedules but Elliott Bay hosts an average of more than one event for every single day of the year, and has kept up this demanding schedule for decades. Big-name authors who have appeared at Elliott Bay events include Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie (making a rare appearance at the heat of the fatwa that kept him in hiding), Joan Didion, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. But Elliott Bay has also shepherded authors from the very beginning of their careers, promoting their books with events when no other bookstore would.
In the next few weeks, we’re going to talk with booksellers about what makes Elliott Bay so special and what’s in store for the future of the bookstore. And I hope you’ll join the Seattle Review of Books for a special free reading at Elliott Bay this Friday, when Sherman Alexie — himself an author who has been reading at Elliott Bay since before he was, well, Sherman Alexie — presents Robert Lashley and EJ Koh, two writers who will no doubt be reading at Elliott Bay for years to come.