On the surface, Seattle might seem like a tough area to ply the independent bookselling trade. It serves as corporate headquarters not just for Amazon, but for mass merchandiser Costco and tech giant Microsoft, which owns 17.6% of Nook Media. To further complicate matters, the difficult economics of bookselling in the region, from Alaska to Idaho, has led to steep declines in membership in the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, which contracted from 276 stores in 2000 to fewer than 125 at the start of the year. Yet many Seattle booksellers contacted by PW were upbeat about the prospects ahead.
In part that’s because there’s a sense that store closings in Seattle have stabilized—and that the city remains a strong book town. Seattle has long been home to some of the country’s most iconic bookstores, including 40-year-old Elliott Bay Book Company and 113-year-old University Book Store, and niche stores like Seattle Mystery Bookshop and Wide World Books & Maps, the country’s oldest travel-only bookstore. And it continues to attract new ones, like five-year-old children’s specialty retailer Mockingbird Books and the two-year-old cookbook store Book Larder. “Indie booksellers here still have a strong presence,” says Michael Coy, manager of Ravenna Third Place. So much so that last February it was named the second-most literate city in the U.S., after Washington, D. C., by Central Connecticut State University.
Seattle’s also the country’s smartest city when it comes to technology, sustainability, and living conditions, according to fastcoexist.com. Plus it’s got a plethora of writers in a variety of genres, from Ivan Doig to Debbie Macomber, Maria Semple, Jess Walter, Sherman Alexie, Garth Stein, and Jennie Shortridge. The latter two are founding members of the Seattle 7 Writers group, which champions indie booksellers, librarians, and the reading community and even has its own band—think the Rock Bottom Remainders—known as the Rejections (and Trailing Spouses). In addition, Seattle can lay claim to giving birth to the graphic novel, according to Larry Reid, manager of Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery, an offshoot of alternative comics publisher Fantagraphics Books. Reid points to out that artists Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, and Matt Groening live in the city.
But Seattle booksellers still face many of the same hurdles as their counterparts in other parts of the country, most of whom would name Amazon, with its deep discounting, as their biggest rival. “Bring it on,” says Janis Segress, owner/operating manager at Queen Anne Book Company, who is more than willing to do battle with Amazon. “We’ve got customers becoming more and more vocal. They’re doing their research on Amazon and buying from us. People are cognizant of where they want to spend their dollars.” She even had one customer during the holidays pay cash to save the store credit-card fees. “We’re a movement just starting to happen, just starting to be recognized,” says Segress, who was instrumental in launching the Indie First Movement. Although it was the brainchild of Sherman Alexie, Indie First was based on the success he had handselling at Queen Anne when the store reopened in its new location last year.
For Fantagraphics’s Reid, Amazon and showrooming—the practice of customers scanning barcodes on books that they see in store so they can buy them for less online—aren’t as much of a problem as they are for other retailers. That’s because 75% of the store’s inventory comes from Fantagraphics Books. Even when customers buy the book online, they’re still contributing to Fantagraphics’s bottom line. Besides, he adds, “We all have friends who work for Amazon. It’s complicated and a lot of people have done quite well there.”
Complicated indeed. Even Mockingbird owner Alyson Stage admits that her attempt to get the message out that there’s a cost associated with being a community resource is sometimes ignored, even by her husband. “I don’t have anything bad to say about Amazon,” says Stage. “Part of the challenge is making people understand that what we provide is a knowledge base in children’s literature. If you already know what you want, you might as well get it from Amazon.” A CPA and children’s literacy advocate, Stage sees the store’s biggest value as supporting parents and teachers trying to get a reluctant reader engaged in reading or sustaining an avid reader’s interest in books. Stage founded the store to give young people good literary skills, which she sees as crucial to leading successful lives.
“I don’t do anything differently because of Amazon’s presence,” says Lara Hamilton, owner of Book Larder and of the Kim Ricketts Book Events speakers series, which brings authors to places like Microsoft. “Amazon’s reach is global, so the only thing that likely differentiates my experience from that of booksellers in other places is that I have plenty of Amazon employees as customers. I want Book Larder to provide a great experience, whether the customer is shopping for the perfect cookbook, taking a cooking class, or attending an author talk. Experienced humans are still better at the delivery of all of those things.”
For Christine Deavel, so much comes down to real estate—and Amazon. She and her husband, John Marshall, both poets, originally had a large general bookstore in Seattle, which opened in 1987. But in 1995 they downsized by moving the store and refocusing it under a new name, Open Books: A Poetry Emporium. “We live with a very thin margin,” explains Deavel. Just how thin means no employees and that they live upstairs in the same bungalow as the store. In the basement they have a letterset press—no Espresso Book Machine—which they use to print chapbooks under the Cash Machine imprint. Even so she says, “We are not immune from Amazon. We have customers who work there; customers who use an Amazon credit card.”
University Book Store faced a different kind of challenge last fall, when people stood in front of the store’s doors during the fall rush to try to sign students up for Amazon Prime, its two-day shipping service. “We were in shock,” says Pam Cady, manager of the general book department. Over the years she has been careful to avoid dissing Amazon—“they’re local, too”—while trying to proselytize in an oblique way by pointing out the values of the oldest and largest bookstore in Seattle at book talks and events.
Like Open Books, 36-year-old Secret Garden Bookshop has adapted by changing its focus—in its case, from a children’s-only store to a general bookstore when it expanded in 2000. Manager/buyer Susan Scott regards the worst aspect of being in Amazon’s hometown is that the retail giant is perceived as a local business. “No thought is given to the fact that they rarely behave like one, here or anywhere else,” she says. But a bigger concern for her is the shifting preferences of the consumer. “Online retailing has exploded,” she says. “Before that, big box stores had changed things by introducing the mall-discount mentality. I think we’re all trying to decide how to preserve our scale, our way of doing business personally and thoughtfully, but also doing it in a way that’s viable.”
One advantage that independents have in Seattle, compared to independents in parts of the country where there might only be a single bookstore for many miles, is the community of booksellers. “One of the things I like about Seattle,” say UW’s Cady, “is that we’re not in a vacuum. It’s a really great bookstore community. Everybody is so smart. And we see each other all the time.”