Interview with a Bookstore: Elliott Bay Book Company
In Which Dinesh D'Souza Somehow Escapes a Stern Talking To
Elliott Bay Book Company was opened in 1973 by Walter Carr, who hired laid-off Boeing workers to help build the shelves in the store. During this construction period, while Carr was working in the alley late one night, he encountered a young busboy from the restaurant next door. Rick Simonson was 18 and asked Walter what was going on with the bookstore… eventually, Rick joined the staff of the new store—40 years later, he’s Elliott Bay’s head buyer and readings coordinator (many of the stores display tables are from that same restaurant where Rick was a busboy). Walter sold the store in 1999 to current owned by Peter Aaron.
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
Peter (owner): I don’t think in terms of “better than any other bookstore,” but rather about maintaining focus on the critical elements that are most important to our customers, and striving to perform and deliver those. In our case there are four such key elements: 1) a welcoming, commodious and attractive space in which to browse, ponder and linger with books; 2) as broad, varied and authoritative a selection of titles, authors and presses as possible (in our case 20,000 square feet, 150,000 titles); 3) a comprehensive schedule of author events—we host more than 500 readings each year, the vast majority in the store, and free; and 4) by far the most important of all, a staff of excellent booksellers—people deeply and passionately engaged with books, who love to share their enthusiasm and knowledge with readers.
What’s your favorite section in the store?
Laurie (Bookseller/Marketing): My favorite section in the store is the art section. Just today a woman who is recently retired asked me to recommend a beginner’s guide to drawing. I handed her a number of books to start her on her path and she said, “I feel like I’m beginning a great adventure!” Then there’s the priest who comes in regularly to find books featuring landscape paintings to add to his extensive collection, a customer who loves to read books about art heists and forgeries, a young man obsessed with typography (he calls it his “font fetish”), a woman who was recently delighted to discover that we had two beautiful books of J.M.W. Turner’s work after seeing the film, Mr. Turner. So much beauty, so much creative expression, so much potential inside this space!
If you weren’t working at a bookstore what would you be doing?
Jesse (Bookseller/Returns Dept.): If I weren’t working in a bookstore, I’d be meditating on the beach at Hanalei, Kaua’i.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
Justus (Manager/Sidelines Buyer): Each staff member would have an entire shelf to feature their staff picks/ideal shelf. We would have a writing room and an introvert’s lounge for silent reading with wide windows and a spectacular view. We would have a champagne bar with a fireplace, cozy reading chairs and a game space for trying out some of the brilliant board and card games we carry. On the roof, we would have a garden reading area. Our children’s castle would be big, with rooms to explore and secret passageways. We would have a roller derby rink.
What’s your earliest/best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
Holly (Buyer/Children’s Dept): Back in the olden days, many bookstores doubled as office supply stores (or vice versa), so amid the adding machine tape and typewriter ribbon were several shelves of books. Here was where I plunked down crumpled dollars and fistfuls of change to become a book owner. Having been raised in libraries buying books was as special and rare as Christmas itself, but after months of saving I put my five-dollars and ninety-five cents on the counter and bought my own hardcover copy of Little Women.
Who’s your favorite regular?
Kenny Coble (Bookseller): I think our store’s most interesting customer is Joanne, with her big hats and the personal folding shopping cart she rolls around the store. Many of us have some kind of special connection with her and we love her fiery spirit and her independent streak and her unbridled opinions. She was a computer engineer in the 1960s and 70s, before I even knew computers existed. She never married and is proudly independent and free of society’s expectations of women of her generation. Joanne knows I am a writer and, even though we are now friends, she has told me repeatedly that she will never read anything I write because it’s all fiction and she hardly sees the point. She loves art books and history and discovering the world’s wonders and has no time for my trivial, made-up stories. Somehow I am never offended by her saying things like that—probably because she has hosted me multiple times to dinner at her retirement community and she lets me order two desserts.
What’s been the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
Richael (Bookseller): I’m surprised by the wide variety of reading tastes held by our booksellers. Coming in, I expected most staff to have a rather uniformly highbrow, literary sensibility. Instead, I found minimal pretension and genuine love for all sorts of genres. Staff favorites are refreshingly all over the map, including canonical classics, old-school comics, magical realism, space age sci-fi, political memoir, nature essay, indie poetry—the list goes on. My fellow booksellers—and many customers!—continue to expand my horizons and introduce me to all sorts of new authors, styles and perspectives.
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
Rick (Head Buyer/ Events): I don’t know about THE craziest thing, as every day has its candidates. One vivid one would have been in 1991, when an anthology of essays I had a co-editing hand in, with Scott Walker, Mulitcultural Literary: Opening the American Mind, was beginning to make a bit of a splash in its word-of-mouth way, enough that there were beginning to be attacks and critical reviews. Never mind we didn’t have the internet, email, and social media going then.
Somewhere in there, a publicist from the Free Press, wanting to book the author of a controversial new book with us, proceeded to give the pitch (by phone, this was) of an author who I realized was going to be Dinesh D’Souza. His book, Illiberal Education, was seen to be poised as a counter-attack on the anthology I had worked on. To the publicist, I said sure, have him come. Then, the day he was slated to be at Elliott Bay, a publicist with Graywolf called with word that our anthology had just been attacked in a review in a major national magazine. The reviewer was none other than Dinesh D’Souza. She faxed the review—how things were conveyed then—and I had it there on waxy paper. That was interesting.
A few hours later, a nice spring evening, waiting outside as I would for authors, up strolled Dinesh D’Souza. I greeted him, finding him to have less than a handshake. Maybe he was hearing what I was saying, which was that I worked at the store, but also had co-edited a book he had just attacked.
The audience for his talk that night was fairly small, the talk itself mostly a tepid rehash of the evils of whatever Rigoberta Menchu may or may not have written or said and whatever it might mean what academic people said of her. People smelled out how little there was to it, or to much of what he’s written over the years. But to say, we have given voice and space to all kinds.
SLIDESHOW: Elliott Bay Book Company Staff Recommendations
Elliot Bay Book Company is located at 1521 10th Avenue, Seattle, Washington 98122.