The Elliott Bay Book Company and Me

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By Oren J. Teicher, ABA Chief Operating Officer

For the past few years, several American Booksellers Association staff members have spent a few days in December working in members' stores. These visits have been a fantastic way to better understand bookstore operations while witnessing firsthand what it's like in the store's pre-holiday frenzy. You may have read Meg Smith's report about her experience at Changing Hands in Tempe, Arizona, in BTW a few weeks ago; or the report Len Vlahos filed a year ago from Maria's in Durango, Colorado. On previous trips, I've visited with booksellers at The King's English in Salt Lake City, Utah, and The Regulator in Durham, North Carolina. Each time, I've come back exhilarated, a little exhausted, and full of all kinds of ideas and observations about how we can make ABA more useful and relevant for our members.

This year, I was thrilled to have the chance to work at The Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, Washington. Ever since I wrote about my experience at The King's English during the 2005 holiday season, Elliott Bay General Manager Tracy Taylor has been after me to come to Seattle, an invitation she has reiterated each time we have seen each other. At BookExpo America, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association trade show, and the Winter Institute, Tracy kept cajoling me to come to Elliott Bay for the holidays. She refused to take no for an answer, and I was lucky she didn't!

The Elliott Bay Book Company is a wonderful bookshop. In business for more than 35 years, Elliott Bay is a big store, with 22,000 square feet of selling space, 37 full-time employees, a remarkable event schedule, and, an inventory to die for. The store is located in a magnificent space in Seattle's Pioneer Square. Four big rooms, very high ceilings, lots of exposed brick walls, and a series of balconies, lofts, nooks and crannies, all combine to make the store's interior interesting and inviting.

Pioneer Square has its challenges. While it has a fair number of restaurants and galleries and has undergone some revitalization in recent years, it is the oldest part of downtown Seattle, where parking can be a problem and many of the buildings are still in transition. Like many big cities, Seattle has been inundated with chain competition, and Elliott Bay did go through some difficult years. But under owner Peter Aaron (who bought the store from founder Water Carr in 1998), the business has stabilized and has, in fact, shown some modest growth.

In accepting Tracy's offer, I told her that I only wanted to come if she'd put me to work, doing whatever I could to be helpful. I told her that the one thing she'd probably not want me to do (if she ever wanted to see those customers again) was to have me anywhere near the holiday gift-wrapping station! To my delight, Tracy took me at my word, and within, minutes of arriving at the store on the Wednesday before Christmas I was busy receiving, stickering, and sorting the newly arrived books into their holding "tanks" to be brought down to the selling floor.

Elliott Bay has a rotating staff schedule in which the entire staff performs multiple functions during any given workday. The result is that everyone (and I mean everyone) ends up doing a shift at the cash register, at the information desk, and on the floor. In addition, most of the staff are also responsible for a specific section of the store, so everyone is also spending time shelving, straightening, and re-shelving. At first, the schedule seemed hopelessly chaotic; but, after a few days, it became clear that the constantly shifting staff created a highly engaged and astonishingly informed group of booksellers.

The combined book knowledge of the Elliott Bay staff is remarkable. The staff was special in many other ways as well. They have mastered the art of being helpful and responsive without being intrusive, and the lengths they went to in order to ensure that customers left happy were a sight to behold. Whether a customer was looking for a $7 paperback or a $100 art book, everyone got the same caring and thoughtful attention.

The mantra at Elliott Bay is that, after a customer has inquired regarding where to find a certain section or a specific title, the bookseller gets up, walks that customer to the section, and helps her find the book -- engaging in conversation along the way. And, if the book is not in stock or, as occasionally happens in a store of this size, if you just can't find that title (or a suitable alternative), the bookseller offers to order it or to call neighboring stores to try to locate a copy. Seattle is blessed with many independent bookstores, and, a list of those stores with phone numbers and addresses is readily available for the entire staff to try to assist the customer.

The store was particularly abuzz with the news that one of its managers, Jamil Zaidi, had been selected by the producers of the Today Show to appear in a segment with three other independent booksellers to offer some 11th-hour holiday gift recommendations. Jamil did really well on the show, which aired on the Friday before Christmas, and the entire staff was pleased at the national exposure Elliott Bay received.

Jamil's appearance reinforced for me the power of the media, as a number of customers came to the store over the next few days asking for the titles he had recommended (30,000 Years of Art, by the editors of Phaidon; The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss by Claire Nouvian; Enclosure by Andy Goldsworthy; and Cartographia: Mapping Civilizations by Vincent Virga and Library of Congress).

One really nice feature in the Pacific Northwest this holiday season was that Partners West continued to take orders from bookstores through Saturday afternoon, December 22, and Partners sent its truck out to make deliveries on Sunday, December 23. As a result, even as late as Saturday afternoon, if a title was out of stock and if Partners had it, you could still tell the customer that you could get the book before Christmas!

Elliott Bay's incredible inventory notwithstanding, some customer requests were hard to fill. My favorite unfulfilled requests were for a Zulu phrase book and a copy of The Complete Guide to European Picture Frames. I don't know how booksellers functioned in a pre-Google and Wikipedia era. Every computer terminal at Elliott Bay has full Internet access, and I found myself often consulting those sources to try to be of help. My proudest use-of-the-Internet moment came when a customer asked about that male author whose name she couldn't remember, who appeared on a recent Jon Stewart show talking about the role of religion in American life. Within seconds, I was on the Daily Show's website, and, within another minute, I had a copy of Jon Meacham's American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation in the customer's hand. Of course, that computer jockeying was dwarfed by the speed in which so many of the Elliott Bay staff were able to immediately answer customers' questions.

Elliott Bay has an excellent staff recommendation section, and, like a lot of stores, it clearly was the bestselling section in the store. The store creates its own holiday catalog, and it was clear that regular customers were coming in looking for titles that appeared in the catalog. After reviewing the titles in it, I understood just why I was selling so many copies of Transit Maps of the World.

During the four days I was there, the store was full of customers virtually all of the time. Even a few famous customers. Sherman Alexie, a Seattle resident and an Elliott Bay favorite, spent several hours doing his holiday shopping -- and good-naturedly paused to sign copies of his new book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The Elliott Bay staff was particularly thrilled to report that Sherman Alexie's book outsold the new Harry Potter in the store this year. (With sales reaching 640 copies.) Talk about successful handselling! Long-time Elliott Bay buyer Rick Simonson introduced me to Congressman Jim McDermott, who was also doing his holiday shopping. I couldn't have been happier to see that Rick had handsold the congressman a copy of Stacy Mitchell's Big-Box Swindle.

I can't say enough about the Elliott Bay staff -- they were just amazing. After I got back to New York, I told them in a e-mail that, over the next month or so, whenever they found something shelved in the wrong place, discovered a title stickered improperly, or heard the complaints from a customer about a dumb recommendation, they should just blame me! I also told them that, despite all the legitimate issues these days about the long-term survival of independent bookstores, I was convinced that spending four days at Elliott Bay would restore anyone's confidence in the importance and viability of bookselling!

The four days went by incredibly quickly, and, before I knew it, it was 8:00 p.m. on Saturday night. My stint at Elliott Bay was over. I said my farewells to the staff on the evening shift, collected a nice bag of gifts left for me by Tracy and Holly Myers, another long-time Elliott Bay staffer, and off I went into the rainy Seattle night.

Before coming out to the Pacific Northwest, I had decided to spend Sunday driving up to Bellingham so I could visit with friends Dee and Chuck Robinson and see their new store. The last time I had been in Bellingham, Chuck showed me the plans and the empty lot where the new Village Books was to go, and I was looking forward to seeing it finished and in operation. Driving north from Seattle within a few miles of I-5 there are quite a few ABA member stores, and I was able to engage in a favorite part of my job, getting to visit bookstores. I stopped at the Edmonds Bookshop in Edmonds, The BookWorks in Marysville, Snow Goose Bookstore in Stanwood, The Next Chapter in LaConner, and Watermark Book Co. in Anacortes. It was great to see that each store was hopping with lots of last-minute shoppers. And, as it turned out, by coincidence I ended up following the Partners truck. As I arrived at several stores on the drive north, I saw delighted booksellers opening boxes of newly arrived books -- and calling even more delighted customers to tell them that their books had come in!

By 4:30 that afternoon, I arrived in Bellingham, where there was a very long line at the cash-wrap. The new Village Books was well worth the drive. It's a beautiful store. I wandered around the multiple levels, and even ended up re-shelving some books! After a nice dinner with Chuck and Dee, I made my way back to Seattle to catch an early flight back east on Monday morning.