To this day I haven’t seen anything written that really describes what was in the air then—here and elsewhere. The early 1970s, the Vietnam War winding down, Richard Nixon being both re-elected but also beginning to be undone, so much beginning to be undone. In and through that a certain coming along, as young people will, growing into an adult place, trying to figure what to do in the world. The impetus, in some critical mass way, was not to go the prescribed way.
Not that the former choices were still there. In Seattle Boeing went from over 100,000 to 40,000 in a heartbeat. From that time, from the various impulses—notions of change, community, making something, possibly this, not that—several things would happen. A generation of independent bookstores and small presses, many still with us, would be born.
From that time, too—Microsoft, Starbucks, and Nike were all started, not driven by MBA visions or venture capital. Seattle, politically, was opting for community by saving the Pike Place Market, keeping Pioneer Square and the International District from being razed to provide parking or mall-like development to suit the newly-built Kingdome.
That was some of what was in the air, things I was affected by, taking classes at the University of Washington, working in the kitchen and waiting tables at Das Gasthaus Restaurant on Occidental, when Walter Carr’s intentions to open The Elliott Bay Book Company first became apparent. Architect Dick Dunbar’s blueprint drawings hung on the windows of what had been an art gallery run by Jim Manolides. I’m affected by them, still.
Saturday mornings are magical. Getting there early—before anyone else arrives. The quiet of the bookstore, all to myself. For a while. Dim gleam of the jackets, dun suede of the shelves in half-light. Exaggerated ring of my footsteps, familiar complaint of floorboards. And the smells—wood, paper, phantom scents of coffee, scones. A peace like no other I’ve known—poised to welcome the stir and clamor of the coming day, certain to return—survive—reinfuse beyond, between. Breathe out, breathe in.
Saturday afternoon. The young woman—she could be a model—has been wandering around the store for about two hours. She walks up to me—I’m at the front counter—and demands, What’s your favorite book? Existential inquisition. I draw a panicked blank, hesitate, then stammer The Magic Mountain. She asks why. I blather about it moving at a glacial pace, being idea- rather than plot-driven, how it suspends, warps, sculpts time—is about time. (Passive dissuasion?) That it compends all of Western civilization on the verge of the vortex that will erupt into the First World War and is still swirling today. (Better.)
And all the while a different conversation in my head: Can’t I recommend a book for you? Let me find out what your interests are—tastes, authors, books you’ve liked recently—what you’re in the mood for; our externals, you see, couldn’t possibly be more divergent. What are the probabilities you’ll love the book that I love?
But that’s not what she asked. Not for me to impose the line of inquiry—or make assumptions. She buys the book. I worry—hoping she’ll like it because as the Paterson bard says, So much depends/ upon… On the way out she asks where to go for the best coffee. That’s much easier.
In its humble origins forty years ago, Elliott Bay Book Company opened for business in a fledgling historic district of Pioneer Square which was a collection of restaurants, galleries, craft artisans and small owner-operated enterprises. Inspired by some of the most impressive independent personal bookstores in the West (Kepler’s, Cody’s, City Lights, Chinook Bookshop), one owner with one full-time bookseller in one room with a sparse collection of titles started to practice the tradition of personal bookselling.
We engendered a growing crowd of fans who appreciated the selection of volumes spread over cedar bookshelves on many levels and the ready knowledge of a staff prepared to offer books which satisfy. We benefited from a growing audience over our first decades which enabled several sizable expansions to become one of the most complete book collections in the country. But the core essence of Elliott Bay has always been an impressive group of dedicated, professional booksellers.
One young reader was attracted to the store before we even opened our doors. While still in college, Rick Simonson joined Elliott Bay Books, then slowly developed his own unique career by originating and directing arguably the most active author readings series in the nation. He sets a stage for authors not only at the store but numerous other sides around our region—helping bolster the outreach for many cultural, artistic and social organizations. Thousands of authors have been hosted by Rick’s dedicated energy and vision, and his extensive knowledge of books and authors is widely praised.
The impressive crew of booksellers at the store have been managed most ably by Tracy Taylor for a couple of decades now. Peter Aaron became owner of Elliott Bay after falling in love with the place 14 years ago. He brought a deep insight into poetry along with an experienced management sense, and he was able to engineer that exciting move of the store to 10th Avenue in the vibrant Capitol Hill neighborhood three years ago. Easily a dozen great booksellers from our own era continue to work at the store.
Our pride continually grows having been the “founders.” We encounter smiles and unbridled enthusiasm from those who learn we had responsibility for starting this great bookstore, this Seattle “institution.” That the bookstore continues to deliver the best personal bookstore experience for the world of readers gives us enormous hope for the future of books and reading.
The Letter Q, by Sarah Moon (ed.)
In The Letter Q, award-winning queer authors share hope to their younger selves. They write a love letter of sorts about life…relationships, sex, exes, addiction, marriage, pain, crushes, self-harm, secrets, not fitting in, and being queer. A remarkable anthology that is honest and forthright about being queer and what to expect. The letters are funny, inspiring, tender, heartbreaking, and frank. – Seth
On Being Different, by Merle Miller
In 1971, Merle Miller (biographer of Ike Eisenhower and hardly a radical) was fed up with keeping silent in the face of constant slights, slurs, discrimination, and violence…so he came out in The New York Times. If you wonder why we needed a gay rights movement or if you think nothing changes, read this. With a foreword by Dan Savage. Thank you! – Karen
A Queer & Pleasant Danger, by Kate Bornstein
Despite more than a decade in dubious Scientology, Kate Bornstein musters a level of grace and compassion all but unimaginable to me. Her memoir bowled me over! It’s funny, surprising, sexy, and shocking. If there is any greater pioneer more deeply devoted to queer rights and solidarity, I don’t know who they are! – Dave
A documentary resource guide meets comic book in this fantastic, engaging primer on gender and sexuality. Whether you are new to the topics or already well-versed, you’ll find yourself engrossed in this book as it takes you through history, current culture, theory, biology, neuroscience, and other elements of the sex-gender system. Challenging and thought-provoking, this is a book we’ve needed for a while! – Justus
Crush, by Richard Siken
Surreal yet tactile, dark yet playful. Long sustained lines in a belief that the right margin was “greatness,” and revolving images that charge shape and meaning within the poems and overall collection. A book alive on every line! – Amanda
The End of San Francisco, by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
This memoir oozes devastation and glamour, twirling around the Nineties like it’s San Francisco, and San Francisco like it’s the Nineties! Back when queers and anarchists and vegans fueled the political momentum in the Mission District. But, honey, things are different now. The Nineties are over, and so is San Francisco. Maybe disillusionment and rejuvenation aren’t so different when you’re ready to go deeper still. – Dave
Trevor: A Novella, by James Lescene
A most familiar story for many kids who struggle with being “different” from the supposed norm. Trevor struggles with his sexual identity and is bullied because of it. With a positive outcome, Trevor is a must-read!! – Seth
No Straight Lines, by Justin Hall (ed.)
Thank our glittering stars for the incomparable efforts that brought together forty ravishing years of camp, critique, drama, and wit! This anthology of queer comics has so much to offer: queens, dykes, transmen, transwomen, bisexuals — Oh my! It’s a thing of beauty. – Dave
Adaptation, by Malinda Lo
Twenty-seven days after the world took a turn for the worse, Reese wakes up in a military hospital without any memories of the time she spent there. When she’s released a few days later, she’s told she can’t tell anyone what happened to her and that she’s fine. Except she’s not fine. She’s different and doesn’t know how or why. Adaptation kept me riveted from beginning to end! This is one sci-fi novel that will keep you in suspense to the very end. – Justus
Does Jesus Really Love Me?, by Jeff Chu
How do Christians feel about homosexuality–it’s not as cut and dried as you might think and even Evangelicals are shifting in their thinking. Many powerful stories here in a book well worth reading, regardless of your point of view or religious orientation. – Karen
Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?, by Jeanette Winterson
Winterson’s semi-autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, told the story of a young girl’s abusive childhood dominated by a fanatical, Pentecostal adoptive mother with a special fondness for the apocalypse. This memoir, written 27 years later, fleshes out the details of those harrowing early years and walks us through the breakdowns and breakthroughs of the second chapter of her life. In her boldest stroke, Winterson, determined to vanquish the ever-present shadow of her early abandonment, embarks on a quest to find her birth mother. This is a gripping, fierce, and deeply moving memoir of a woman in search of her own truth. – Laurie
History of a Pleasure Seeker, by Richard Mason
This book isn’t just sexy; it’s decadent! Pleasure comes in all forms for one wealthy Dutch family and their rakish new tutor, Piet Barol, whose trysts are not always constrained by gender or privilege. The line between house staff and patricians is soon left beneath a surreptitious pile of pettycoats. Like Downton Abbey with a delightfully sultry twist! A perfect book for summer. – Dave
I’ve had the pleasure of being at Elliott Bay during the 20th, 30th, and now 40th anniversaries. At each of these milestones, I’ve been reminded of all the amazing people who work here and have worked here, I think about the customers who have supported us and continue to support us, and I remember the thousands of authors who have honored us by sharing their works with audiences here. For me, thinking about all these people is the most meaningful and emotional part of this celebration.
I’ve seen the store go through major transitions: changes in staff, changing competition, new ownership, growth, decline, growth again, and most recently, a new location. When I first started in 1990, I think Jeff Bezos was sitting in our café in Pioneer Square writing his start up business plan. (I ‘d like to think we would have at least refused him that free refill on coffee if we’d had any idea what was on the horizon.) Back in my first year, management of the store was transitioning from Kristine Anderson to Joel Scannell, who eventually passed the torch on to me.
By then the author series had found its feet and Rick Simonson finally had an assistant, Kurt Jensen, so Rick could finally get a night off. Now we have a reading’s staff of six or seven who keep our authors and audiences well cared for, both in the store and out into the community at our many events around the city.
Back in 1990, the staff was a pretty tight group, and it still is. Our expectations of one another are high and we are proud to be booksellers. We are a staff of well read, intelligent people and we butt heads from time to time, but we are passionate about what we do and there is respect. Everyone works to serve our customers and get the right book in their hands and goes to extra lengths when needed.
This 40th anniversary marks a personal milestone for me as well. I am 52 and have now spent half my life as a bookseller, 23 of those years at Elliott Bay, where I met my husband, Greg.
I loved working for Walter Carr, the founder and original owner. He was fair-minded, knew what he wanted his business to be and had a fatherly demeanor. To me, he was one of those mentors you find in life, who help shape how you see the world. He let people be their best and assumed they were doing the right things. He was always gentle in his reminders and you got the sense he cared deeply for all his staff and was passionate about the community. There were numerous times he stepped in to help staff members and people in the community solve problems or to give support. His daily presence is deeply missed.
In 1999, the store changed ownership, first to Ron Scher and then again, within a year or so, to Peter Aaron, the current owner. At first I was skeptical that the transition was going to be a good one. Change can be difficult, especially for booksellers, but it had to be better than closing our doors. The competition had chipped away at us, the staff hadn’t received raises in the last few years, sales had dwindled, and we were faced with the possibility of lay-offs. Frankly, I don’t know where the profit-sharing checks Walt handed out that last year came from.
I wasn’t sure what it was going to be like working for Peter, as he’s harder to get to know than Walter, and it took a while to transition. Although Peter is different than Walter, he shares the same passion and compassion for the world that Walter does. He spent time with each staff member listening to his or her ideas one on one. He took the time to genuinely get to know each person on staff. Fourteen years later, he is more passionate about the bookstore than ever. The move to Capitol Hill gave us all a new outlook, but for Peter it was the opportunity to see growth in his bookstore for the first time.
Before we moved the store in 2010, I wasn’t sure we would be able to make the move within the two week allotted slot, or even as a cohesive team. Declining sales, slow days and the overall atmosphere of lethargy had settled in. Yet, when the time came, the crew pulled together and packed up every single book, the furnishings and the fixtures and enthusiastically made the trek.
We now have new life up on the hill. Many of our longtime customers still make the hike up from Pioneer Square. We have children in the store now and regular story hours, something we hadn’t had for years. Our expanded customer base is evident throughout the day, as the deliberate early morning browsers shift to students and professionals between classes and appointments in the afternoon. Our 7pm readings bring in groups of customers with a wide variety of common interests, before the late evening brings more relaxed, meandering browsing as folks stop by after dinner or on their way to the bars.
Every book on our shelves has been hand selected and placed there for you by a bookseller. We have the best people in the world working here. They tend to be writers or people between degrees or interested in writing or the publishing world at large. Many of our booksellers have gone on to become publisher sales reps, writers, librarian, or champions of the printed word in their communities. I know that the store is a little richer in heritage and tradition for each and every person who has worked here and put their passion into creating this magical place.
We are here, waiting to serve you, interested in what you just read and hoping you will ask us for a recommendation. Mostly, we just want to say thanks for supporting us. Thanks for keeping us here and we look forward to the next 40 years.
As for me, I want to say thanks to the literally hundreds of booksellers who have come and gone and come and stayed over the course these 40 years. You make this place what it is.
Months ago, I received a copy of Ruth Ozeki’s latest novel, A Tale For The Time Being. I started to read it before her event here, back in March. It’s a gorgeous dialog between a diary from Japan and its Canadian reader, with lots of footnotes — sort of a voyeuristic metanarrative that transcends the Pacific Ocean. I’m still reading it. Because I started it so many weeks ago, and I can usually get through a novel in two weeks or so, it sometimes feels like I’ve been reading Time Being forever.
But Ozeki’s book is incredible. And her event was spectacular! She was one of the most engaging authors to hear, and she read in the best way — with voices! — embellishing the shifts in narrative between young diarist Yasutani Naoko (or Nao, for short) in Akiba Electricity Town, Tokyo, and the writer’s-blocked novelist in British Columbia who finds the girl’s journal after the 2011 tsunami, Ruth Ozeki.
I started the book, and then abandoned it until June. It’s unfortunate, but it happens sometimes. I’m trying to be better about returning to books I’ve started, though. Sometimes you’re not quite ready for a book, but a mere few months later you will be.
Honestly, I couldn’t stop admiring the book’s cover. And I loved her reading of the centenarian, anarchist, Buddhist nun, and great grandmother to Nao, Jiko. So since the beginning of June I’ve returned to A Tale For The Time Being.
Each character muses on the effect of time — Nao, Jiko, Ruth, and her husband Oliver — as all their stories unfold. The blend of philosophy and intergenerational relationships reminds me a little of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, but Ozeki develops a fascinating tension between Eastern and Western philosophies as Nao gravitates toward Jiko while her father, Haruki, becomes enamoured of Western philosophers on his spiral toward suicide.
My favorite line of Jiko’s is, “Up, down, same thing.” Nao finds this inane and argues, “No, it’s not the same thing.” To which Jiko responds, “You are right. Not same.” Then adds, “Not different, either.”
I think I like it so much because I often think, “Read, unread, same thing.” In my mind, I’m reading books constantly, whether they’re in front of me or not. Of course, there are reviews and interviews that I read that inform what I’m reading and not reading, but then there’s the idea that a really good book is one you keep mulling over, even after you turn the last page. I read Moby Dick almost six years ago, but I still marvel over it.
Ozeki mesmerizes. Her characters are some of the most personable I’ve read — Nao’s confessional style wavers from pensive to self-critical in a pitch-perfect essence of adolescence; Ruth becomes overly attached to the girl and her thoughts, though they’ve never met and she’s unsure Nao even exists; Oliver’s naturalistic sense of the cosmos parries Ruth’s need for narrative arc and closure; Jiko’s flawed nobility balances perfectly with Haruki’s noble flaws.
If you think about the peaks and valleys your own middle school diaries covered over the course of a year or two, you’ll get a good sense of everything Nao goes through as she tries to keep her family together and to learn the peaceful Buddhism her great grandmother exudes.
I feel like I’ve been reading this book forever, but in a really cool Zen way. Ruth Ozeki is a superb writer, with a powerful sense of voice, a realized sense of place. And it doesn’t hurt that as our weather in the past couple weeks has spanned from hot and sunny to cool and misty, so have the scenes in A Tale For The Time Being. This is a book I’m going to be reading for a long time into the future. Reading, not reading — same thing.