“May 2 of this year was Indie Bookstore Day. There are 17 independent bookstores in the Seattle area. Thirty-seven people visited every one of them that day. One of the stores over on an island opened at 8:00 a.m. That’s where the true indie lovers began their route for the day.”
Seattle is serious about books. People in Seattle buy and read more books than in any major metropolitan area of the United States. And they support local bookstores. Like many cultural affinities, these factors feed upon each other. An engaged readership patronizes good bookstores, which in turn cultivates more engaged readers.
Karen Maeda Allman is the community relations and event coordinator at Elliott Bay Book Company, one of Settle’s largest independent bookstores. Karen is a Japanese-American who moved to Seattle from Phoenix to get a PhD. in nursing but became disillusioned with healthcare and drawn to the bookstore business. Karen also sells books at the store. “Everyone does that, except for the bookkeeper.” About 25 people work at Elliott Bay. Some of the staff moved to Seattle to work in an independent bookstore. Karen works closely with other bookstores and the public library system. “Seattle began the one book, one city program. Anything that gets people to read is good for everybody.”
Elliott Bay Book Company began in 1973 in a gorgeous old space in Pioneer Square. Through the 2000’s traffic declined, and in 2010 owner Peter Aaron moved the store to Capitol Hill. It was a logical choice, since Capitol Hill is near several universities and it’s 32,000 residents have an alternative vibe. Still, Karen tries to keep the store relevant. “We are a destination, a place to go to meet and mingle. People have gotten married in the store. We create live experiences with authors, and we offer an important third place to be: after home and work.” Since so many people don’t have traditional workplaces anymore, Elliott Bay’s comfy couches and inviting cafe offer an alternative to working from home. “People want us around, and they know they have to buy something to make that continue.”
About 250 new books are published every day in the United States. I asked Karen how Elliott Bay decides what to carry. “We buy for our neighborhood; the chains buy for the nation. Of course we carry James Patterson; one in seven hardcovers sold in the United States are his books. But we carry very different titles as well. We continue to listen to our customers. There is no lack of good books. Indies can help launch new authors. Right now there are many female musician books coming out. These provide us the opportunity to do both performance and book events.”
Karen has been in Seattle long enough to reflect on the changes occurring in the city. “People are getting priced out of the city, and that is not good. Transportation-wise we are not a leader. We were late in getting light rail. Life is good here if you walk or bike to work, but you have a brutal commute in a car. Seattle has a tendency to talk rather than do. The city has a focus on Arts and History; that is good. But will it continue? The city demographic is skewed by whom the high-tech companies hire. Will we become a Bro/Dude city?”
How will we live tomorrow?