I arrived in Seattle on May 4th, 2000. I applied for a job at Elliott Bay Book Company two days later. My first day at Elliott Bay Book Company was May 15th. I cannot express how important being hired at Elliott Bay was for me, what it did for my life. I had worked at a Borders in Boston for years, but Elliott Bay was, quite obviously, something different. It was more serious than Borders, felt more like a place of worship. While customers at Borders always treated booksellers with scorn, the customers were nicer, more deferential to booksellers at Elliott Bay; they respected our knowledge and were interested in what we had to say. And the reading series, with an average of at least one event per day, meant that even the newest booksellers interacted with world-class authors. (On May 17th, I worked at a Sherman Alexie reading from The Toughest Indian in the World at Town Hall Seattle. He was incredibly gracious to all the booksellers. I also worked readings with Chuck Palahniuk, Dave Eggers, and David Sedaris that year, all of whom were almost impossibly nice.)
There is an understanding when you come to work at Elliott Bay that you’re working at one of the best bookstores in the world. And though the pay was not remarkable — better than Borders, but in line with non-commission retail work — you got to spend your days in one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. (And the 40 percent staff discount and endless supply of free advance reader’s copies probably saved me thousands of dollars a year in book purchases I would’ve made if I worked anywhere else.)
Because it’s not tied to a corporate chain, it’s very easy for booksellers to make their mark at Elliott Bay. Humans, and not algorithms, order the books that make up the store. Sections are always evolving and growing. It’s not uncommon for a bookseller at Elliott Bay to champion a book so passionately that a publisher will order a new printing of the title based on the sales bump out of Seattle. Publishers will court Elliott Bay booksellers because they understand how much their approval means.
More than the books on the shelves, the people make the bookstore what it is: though Elliott Bay always has its share of enthusiastic young staffers, many booksellers have been with the store for decades. Store manager Tracy Taylor has led Elliott Bay through three owners, the Mardi Gras Riots of 2001, the Nisqually Earthquake, and the move from Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill. Receiving manager Erica Dorfman has shepherded uncountable millions of pounds of books through the store. Rick Simonson founded the reading series and has overseen its growth with Karen Maeda Allman, formerly of Red and Black Books. Head buyer Holly Myers has passionately tended to the kids’ section for decades. Store owner Peter Aaron dedicated his life to the vision that Walter Carr brought into the world over four decades ago; he kept the store alive when nobody else would, and his decision to move Elliott Bay to Capitol Hill breathed new life (financial and conceptual) into the business.
I’m obviously biased, but Elliott Bay is, to my mind, the best bookstore in the world. Plenty of people swoon over Powell’s, but I’ve always thought it to be just too damn big. I’ve lost days to browsing the stacks at Powell’s, but I just can’t wrap my head around the store because there’s too much of it. Elliott Bay is big enough to get lost in but just small enough to comprehend. It’s human-sized, and in an age when you can get whatever you want online, that curation is important.
The selection at Elliott Bay is obviously huge, but it’s also stocked with the right books, chosen and shelved by a human being who loves books. That’s not the kind of thing you can quantify, but it is something you can recognize when you see it. When a book comes to you through the hands of so many good people, that book somehow carries more value. It gives the book a continuity and it gives the reader a community. This is the kind of power that can change a life.