Issue 7.5: October/November 2004

Independent's Day


by Pamela Frierson
photo by Thomas M. Barwick

Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company is downtown, in the city’s historic Pioneer Square, and the whole place has the seductiveness and complexity of a great story: It’s in the brick walls, rough-cut cedar shelves, creaky old wood floors, the smell of the books and the aroma of coffee wafting up an open stairwell from the basement café. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a place more conducive to what one staff member calls "pleasurable, mind-meandering hours of browsing." Elliott Bay is one of the country’s great independent bookstores, with one of the most diverse inventories this side of the Library of Congress. A huge Northwest regional section, for example, is stocked with books on even the most esoteric subjects (i.e.: the area’s most scenic fire lookouts). A brick archway opens to a whole wall devoted to Seattle-area authors; there you may find one of the staff chatting animatedly with a customer about the city’s many mystery writers.

Elliott Bay’s formula for success in an era when many independent bookstores are struggling is to keep doing what bookstores do best: create a sanctuary for the bibliophile. Started over three decades ago in the 1891-built Globe Building, the bookstore first opened in a corner that once housed a saloon. It expanded steadily into rooms previously occupied by carriage and bicycle retailers, clothing stores and a barbershop that was reputedly a front for prostitution. The end result is a warren with inviting nooks and crannies at every turn.

"When I first walked in here twenty-five years ago, I thought, ‘This is everything a bookstore should be,’" says longtime fan Peter Aaron. He put his money where his heart is: Five years ago he bought the place. Today this vibrant center for readers is also a place of writers: Many authors come from around the globe to share their work at the Book Company. On the bill last June? Everyone from David Sedaris to Bill Clinton.

Elliott Bay Book Company