BACKGROUND: ELLIOTT BAY BOOK CO.
“No, you can’t. Elliott Bay can’t be anyplace else,” thought owner Peter Aaron as he stood among the century-old brick walls, creaky wood floors, and hand-built cedar shelves that had held—and heard—so many stories since 1973, when Walter Carr founded the bookstore in a single room off Seattle's Pioneer Square. Over the years, Carr expanded it into a beloved labyrinth, “an organically arrived at series of rooms,” according to chief buyer Rick Simonson, who started as a clerk in 1976. But by 2005, the neighborhood had gained a reputation for rowdy fans from the nearby stadiums, homelessness, and crime. Retail shoppers—especially families—were staying away. When sales collapsed with the recession in 2008, Aaron’s choice was clear: move or close.
Having finally found his passion, Aaron wasn’t going to let Elliott Bay close without a fight. In 1998, after 25 unfulfilling years in the department store industry, “I literally picked a date, just drew a line in the sand and walked away, without a job and without still knowing what I was going to do,” he remembers. When Aaron was brought in as a consultant to analyze the store’s chances of survival in the shadow of Amazon, he fell in love with Elliott Bay and the idea of saving it. He ended up buying the store.
Aaron found a promising 1916 building in Seattle’s revitalized Capitol Hill neighborhood. With flaking paint, drop ceilings, and linoleum floors, it needed a complete overhaul. “People would be walking into the store for the first time bound and determined not to like it, because it wasn’t the old store,” he feared. No one could replicate the magic of the original Elliott Bay interior. Instead, his design team created an open, light-filled contemporary space that exposed and celebrated the massive old-growth timbers, skylights, and wood floors of the 1916 structure while incorporating elements from the old store like the hand-built cedar shelves.
Aaron also had a strategy for turning the business around: focus the remaining resources on the things that Elliott Bay does best. He continued to invest in an expert staff and a broad inventory. He chose not to sell e-readers in the store. “I didn’t want to turn our staff of great booksellers into mediocre electronics salespeople,” he says. He eliminated Elliott Bay’s used book business. He expanded the children’s section, and dedicated a large basement room to the author readings program, which Simonson had built into the most extensive in the country. "We annually put on between 500–600 author events a year," says Aaron. "The vast, vast majority of them (which is to say all of the events that are within the store) are free to the public," he adds. "Thousands and thousands of people have the opportunity to have this wonderful, rather intimate, encounter with writers and their work."
Since the store moved in 2010, sales have risen every year. Aaron waxes lyrical about early mornings in Elliott Bay’s new home, before anyone else arrives. He loves “the suede of the shelves in half-light, the exaggerated ring of my footsteps, the familiar complaint of floorboards, the smells of wood and paper, coffee and scones … poised to welcome the stir and clamor of the coming day.” It looks like his gamble has paid off: not only has Peter Aaron reinvigorated Elliott Bay’s future, Elliott Bay has reinvigorated him, too.