A Store for Booksellers
The root of Peter Aaron’s love for owning a bookstore comes down to handselling a book to a customer. “I especially love those challenges of someone who is looking to buy a gift for someone and they have absolutely no idea or think they have absolutlely no idea what’s the right book for that person,” he said. “The whole challenge of trying to get information and trying to spark something that even the person you are talking to doesn’t know they know but they know it. The satifisfaction that comes with putting a book in their hands that you just know is going to be loved is the best. There is nothing like that in the world.”
If you can’t make it to the Elliott Bay Book Company to get a personal recommendation from Peter himself, check out his recommendations below:
Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear (Volume 1) by Javier Marías
Tomorrow in the Battle Think of Me by Javier Marías
The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
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The Elliott Bay Book Company
40 Years of Bookselling Down, Many More Years to Come
Peter Aaron, owner of The Elliott Bay Book Company, had a long and winding journey road to where he is today. “I arbitrarily picked a date and quit my job. I just walked away without having any idea what I was going to do or where my income was going to come from,” Peter revealed. That is when the light bulb went off and he knew the bookselling business was for him. “I just loved it. I loved it from the first day and I realized this is what I had been looking for the last 25 years.”
This love and dedication was apparent in Peter’s voice as I talked to him about Elliott Bay. Day after day, Peter and his fellow booksellers at Elliott Bay are always looking behind as they move ahead, never losing sight of founder Walter Carr’s original vision for the store. When I asked Peter what he thought contributed to Elliott Bay being able to celebrate its fortieth birthday in 2013, he boiled it down to four key aspects:
Sense of Place: “Walter Carr built a beautiful store. And when I say built, I mean literally built. His genius was in constructing that bookstore. He was not that much of a reader, strangely enough, but he was great with a hammer and saw. He built this beautiful place and when I first moved to Seattle in 1983 and walked through the door the first time, it literally took my breath away. It was ‘Wow, this is what a bookstore should look like.’”
Breadth of Inventory: “From the first day, even when it was a small store, Walt wanted to have a general bookstore. He wanted Elliott Bay to have as broad a selection of subject matter, publishers, authors as could possibly be housed. As the store grew over the years from its original 1,500 square feet to its ultimate 15,000 square feet of selling space, that was always a trademark of the store.”
Author Events: “In 1978, for the very first time, Elliott Bay had an author event. This sounds kind of strange right looking back at it now, but this was not a common thing then outside of New York. That was built into what I believe is the largest and comprehensive and reading series in the country. We host annually an excess of 500 events a year. We average almost two a day. That is and has always been our single most marketing device.” One of the key players behind Elliott Bay’s reading series is Rick Simonson, the current head buyer and events coordinator, who has been with the store since 1976.
Bookselling First and Foremost: “Walt had believed from the beginning and really nurtured and fostered this over the years. I have done my best to carry on and even enhance this quality if possible Elliott Bay has always been a bookseller’s store. There are no stock people, there are no cashiers, there are no clerks. Everyone on that staff, first and foremost, is a bookseller. And everything we do in terms of how we do the work we do and how we schedule our time is geared towards creating an experience that any of our people that a customer encounters at our store any place and any time is a bookseller is somebody is who is not only able to but happy to share information, enthusiasm, encouragement, conversation, and their expertise about books.”
While there is no science to how to run a successful independent bookstore, Elliot Bay is definitely a store that certain or future booksellers can look to for inspiration even during challenging moments.
“During the good times is when you tighten your belt as much as you can and stash it away because I guarantee that there is going to come a wave crashing over you and you need to have the reserves for it. And during the bad times, that is when you want to open things up because that guarantees the confidence both in your customer and your employees that things are going to be okay and you are going to make it through. There is a certain counter intuitiveness about the business,” Peter stated.
Part of Peter’s leadership mentality is to stick with what he thinks is right for his bookstore, not a different store nearby or across the country. “The answer to that [staying power] is really fierce focus on what makes us work, what customers value in us, what we can do at such a high level that people want and need to support us.”
This approach is illustrated in Peter’s decision not to sell a line of e-readers devices and content at the store. “We can’t compete with the best devices. We can’t compete with the best service. I have no intention of distracting excellent booksellers to becoming not so great electronic device sales people,” Peter stated. He recognizes that he may be in the minority and his viewpoint might be considered controversial to some. “I am not telling you that I know for sure that is the right thing. Time will tell, but to me it made sense because it goes back to stick to what’s essential and try to minimize what is not,” Peter continued.
As Peter stated, it all comes down to “Knowing what works and making it better.” From the sound of it, the Elliott Bay Book Company has and will always be doing just that.
To keep up-to-date with everything going on at the Elliott Bay Book Company, check out their website at: www.elliottbaybook.com.
Nicolette Amstutz is a writer for Independent Publisher. She recently graduated from the University of Michigan where she majored in English and Communications. Please contact her with any comments, questions, or criticisms at namstutz (at) umich.edu