Known for its soaring rafters, spacious aisles, and a wall of staff picks of every flavor, Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company turned 50 years old on June 29. Ensconced since 2010 in a 20,000-sq.-ft. former Ford truck repair warehouse in the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, the store started in historic Pioneer Square in 1973. A second Elliott Bay outpost is located at SeaTac International Airport.

The store’s golden anniversary comes one year after the triumvirate of Tracy Taylor, Joey Burgess, and Murf Hall took ownership from its retiring owner, Peter Aaron, who’d been with Elliott Bay since 1999. Aaron bought the store from founders Walter and Maggie Carr. (Though Aaron arrived in 1999, he did not become sole proprietor until 2001.)

“Peter had talked about succession planning for many years, but until the store was in good shape, he was not ready to pass those reins on,” said Taylor, who started working at Elliott Bay in 1990 and served as its general manager for 23 years. “We’re very lucky to come in and freshen the store, and Joey and Murf are great at seeing things with new eyes.”

A married couple, Burgess and Hall were already well-known Seattle entrepreneurs when they joined Taylor at Elliott Bay. They run the thriving Burgess Hall Group, which develops clubby neighborhood spots like Queer/Bar and, in collaboration with Taylor in 2021, the newsstand Big Little News. “We’re deeply invested in the neighborhood,” Burgess said. When the opportunity to lead Elliott Bay came along, he was excited to keep the business “small and local,” as well as “to be the first ownership team that would make it a woman- and queer-owned bookstore.”

Burgess knows the ins and outs of restaurants and night spots, and Hall brings 20 years of experience planning spaces for the fashion retailer Nordstrom, where he became design director. From a designer’s viewpoint, he contrasts an indie bookstore’s welcoming environment to a big-box store where “you’re just there to get the thing and get out as fast as you can.” At Elliott Bay, his mission is to “engage customers on a deeper, emotional level,” so they’ll browse the shelves and hang out in its café.

Elliott Bay staffers formed the Bookworkers Union and voted to unionize in March 2020. Taylor was present throughout collective bargaining (and the pandemic), and she feels relieved a contract was in place when Burgess and Hall came on board. “If a group unionizes, almost immediately they’re sitting down with the ownership to start negotiating,” she said. “That can be a real disruption when you’re unfamiliar with how a union works and you’re working on communication.” Before the ownership changed, “We had our contract negotiation, which took about eight months and went very smoothly.”

“Tracy was luckily there through the whole unionization and helped lead us through how that works,” Burgess said. He appreciates that union representatives bring collective staff feedback to management, signaling important matters of concern. Taylor added that she, Burgess, and Hall checked in with the union “shortly after taking ownership. They requested we reopen the contract and raise wages, which we did, because things changed during the pandemic.”

While the union revamped labor conditions at Elliott Bay, other facets of the half-century-old bookstore, whose staff includes 30 full-time employees and one part-timer, will stay in place. The new owners moved the staff picks and romance shelves to more prominent locations, built up the children’s section, and updated the website and sound system. Yet they intend all adjustments to “feel authentic to what’s already in the store,” Burgess said.

“In terms of physical space, alterations, we’re going to take it slow,” Hall added. “We’ll always look at product mix and placement, and customers guide us on that. We’ll look at the trends that are happening in our store and online, as well as what we’re hearing from industry partners.” He sees sidelines as an area for growth. For example, to celebrate Elliott Bay’s noteworthy anniversary, “we did an open call for submissions from local artists” that netted more than 300 ideas for store merchandise, Burgess said. They chose about a dozen designs for totes and T-shirts, “and we sold out of the first few styles. I’ve had to reorder twice.”

The trio of new owners feels gratified by the community’s response to Elliott Bay’s landmark occasion: “We’re making sure that the store is set up for success and optimized for the shopper,” Hall said.