Maybe the saddest Seattle news headline I’ve ever seen

Elliott Bay Books Looking to Move?

Elliott Bay Book Co. is considering moving from its iconic 36-year home in the city’s historic Pioneer Square, the store manager confirmed Saturday.

Tracy Taylor said a move “is a possibility. We’re looking into it.” She declined to elaborate and referred other questions to the bookstore owner, Peter Aaron.

Aaron, who Taylor said was out of town, did not immediately return an e-mail or respond to a phone message left Saturday evening.

The brick-facade store has been a longtime tourist draw and retail anchor of the city’s original business district, and its move would be a blow to the area. Pioneer Square has gained — and fought — its gritty reputation, and the city has encouraged retailers to open storefronts alongside the square’s bars and clubs.

“We have been trying to encourage diversity down there,” said Richard Conlin, president of the Seattle City Council, who said he has heard only “rumors” about a move by the bookstore. “This could have a very serious impact. If it’s true, it’s disappointing.”

Taylor would not comment on a report in a blog operated by the tabloid The Stranger that said the bookstore would reopen in a building between Pine and Pike streets on Capitol Hill.

When I first moved to Seattle in 1989, nervous and excited about living on my own for the first time and starting college, I began taking bus rides from Seattle Pacific University on Queen Anne Hill to downtown’s Elliott Bay Book Company about once a week. Sometimes more.

While I have strong, nostalgic attachment to Portland’s Powell’s Books, Elliott Bay became the center of this book lover’s universe. Where Powell’s was crowded and intimidating, Elliott Bay was darker, quieter, and staffed by an enthusiastic, loyal, opinionated crew that attached their own detailed book reviews to the displays throughout the store. I used to hang out in the Fiction section and the Fantasy section and dream of seeing my own stories on those shelves someday. I bought piles of magazines about music and cinema. I watched a couple of spirited workers, Steve and Vlad, stocking the shelves and discussing recent releases like monks pondering scriptures.

I spent many evenings in the cafe downstairs, among the crowded shelves of clearance volumes, reading, studying, and soaking up the ambiance that was rich with red-brick history.

I wrote a great deal of the first draft of Auralia’s Colors there.

On February 1, 1996, I knelt down in the Poetry section while Anne Maureen Doe was reading some poetry to herself. I took her hand and asked her to marry me. A couple of staffers at the Information Counter noticed what was happening, and I’ll never forget their smiles. When Anne saw the ring, she was so startled that she cried out, “You’re not going to do this HERE are you?” Not really the reaction I’d been hoping for. But then she laughed and said, “Yes,” and later agreed that it really was the perfect place for the occasion.

In the Reading Room, I listened to great writers like Kathleen Norris, Michael Chabon, and even Phillip Pullman (reading in distinct character voices to a crowd of children who would have been confused to learn that their entertainer despised the very idea of Aslan). Elliott Bay also hosted larger events in bigger auditoriums nearby: I remember appearances by Barbara Kingsolver and Mark Helprin vividly.

It was there that I became enthralled with the poetry of Scott Cairns, and met him for the first time. He has since become something of a mentor and a dear friend. And most of the letters I wrote in those days were handwritten on artful, interesting cards from their eclectic stock. The store owner, Peter Aaron, was in a small poetry-writing group with Anne, and that only made us cherish the store even more.

So it is with deep, aching sadness that I read this article in yesterday’s newspaper. And I sincerely hope for some kind of miracle that will allow the store to keep its fabled location. But better to see it find a place where it will thrive than to see it utterly crushed by the economic crisis and changing times.

For those who love to linger in bookstores, the world is become a difficult place. When I first heard about Amazon’s digital reader, the Kindle, I thought it an appropriate name… in a Fahrenheit 451 kind of way. It was the striking of the match to light a fire that would endanger bookstores everywhere. I know that digital readers are not evil, but in our rush to make everything portable and convenient, we are losing the tactile joys that lead us to treat reading with reverence. No matter what technology offers us, as far as I’m concerned, the move to digital reading is not an advance at all. It is a departure from a place, a shared experience, a culture, and a retreat into a world of individual, private experiences, where genuine dialogue becomes more difficult, and words become cheaper because they have lost the “weight” that they deserve.

I refuse to start reading novels on a digital device. Maybe that means I’m becoming a grumpy curmudgeon, like those who grumbled about replacing their cassette tapes with CDs. But I don’t think so. This isn’t about a format change. This is about the death of a wonderland. And that wonderland is not being replaced by anything exciting and new.

I love Elliott Bay Book Company. Long may it reign as the best kind of escape from the rain.

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  • And the direction we’re headed with Kindles and Nooks and other digital readers may also spell trouble for publishers. Somehow, unfortunately, they’ll have to make this digital leap, but I think that many more publishers will go under before someone finds a way to legitimately make money on ebooks and solve the looming threat of book piracy. And if this also leads to the death of indie bookstores like Elliot Bay, not to mention the summer rumors that Borders might go under, then that is also bad for publishers (and authors). I’m afraid that many publishers will face this threat by trimming their ranks and streamlining their duties, making the editor who actually edits the rarest of breeds…

  • For the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone would abandon books in favour of devices that require batteries. Or why anyone would abandon books in favour of devices that allow publishers and vendors to delete the material you bought from a distance. I can understand having Kindles as a sort of back-up, especially if they can fit entire libraries in your pocket, but not as a substitute.

    As for the CD analogy: Records, cassettes, eight-tracks and CDs have always needed machines to interpret them, so on that level, it doesn’t matter much which particular technology you’re using to record and play back your music. It might, however, matter if the new technology (iPods or some variation thereof) were to allow the sort of long-range corporate meddling that Kindles do.

    But I wonder if the problem is necessarily Kindles, per se. Just the fact that people can browse and buy books online, instead of wandering around a store looking for what they want (which may or may not be in stock), must be posing a problem to stores like this.