Rumors had been circulating for weeks about Seattle's landmark independent bookstore. Was it in danger of closing its doors? Was Jeff Bezos eyeing it as a trophy brick-and-mortar acquisition? Even Robert Redford's name was circulated as a potential savior-investor.
But the rumors ceased February 19 with the breaking of the news in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: owner Walter Carr was finalizing plans to sell Elliott Bay to Seattle-area real estate developer Ron Sher. Sher is the owner of Third Place Books, a used and new book superstore that opened this past fall in an expensive new space north of Seattle. So ends Walter Carr's 26-year reign as one of the nation's pioneering independent bookstore owners.Upon the closing of the deal, Elliott Bay Book Co. will keep its name, and the staff is expected to remain in place.
That includes buyer Rick Simonson, who is the driving force behind the store's impressive author reading schedule and the person most associated with the store's literary reputation.
Elliott Bay has been facing declining profits for the past six years. Carr cited the arrival of three competing chain stores, the parking crunch in the Pioneer Square neighborhood and pressure from Seattle-based online bookseller Amazon.com as some of the primary forces hurting his store. But 26 years after he first opened a one-room store in the corner of a historic Seattle building, Carr was mostly fatigued from fighting the long battle of the independents.
"I'm tired," Carr told PW, "And a little frustrated with the changes in the business." A new challenge seemed to emerge every few months. "It's as if we're surrounded by competitors who can get books for less or get other payments that help their margins," he said.
Carr faced what he called the "devil of liquidation," and the possibility of closing, but in the end was convinced that Sher's business philosophy and the mission behind Third Place Books were compatible with Elliott Bay's values."They have an intelligent focus," said Carr. "If you look at the Third Place philosophy -- that outside of home and place of work, there's a need for a place that is the centerpoint for the community -- we have served that capacity, without the explicit mission statement."
Carr was convinced that Sher would continue to build on Elliott Bay's strengths and reputation, while providing the capital and management structure that was lacking to make adjustments in the new bookselling market. Third Place has an infrastructure for buying and stocking used titles, something Elliott Bay was far behind the curve in implementing. And Sher's pockets are said to be deep, as his opulent Third Place store in Lake Forest Park demonstrates.
But more than money, Carr wanted assurances that Elliott Bay Book Company would continue as one of the cultural hubs of the city. The store pioneered the author reading concept in the mid-1980s, and over the years has raised thousands of dollars for hundreds of community organizations. Even though Sher has only a few years' experience in the book trade, Carr was apparently impressed with his commitment to continuing Elliott Bay's tradition. "He's a reader," said Carr. And Sher has taken on many revitalization projects for small business and declining retail environments. So it seemed a perfect match.
"What I have accomplished here," said Carr, "will continue without me."