Readers and writers remember Elliott Bay Book Co.
Writers and readers remember scenes from Elliott Bay Book Co.’s past four decades.
Seattle Times book editor
Elliott Bay is much more than a business. It’s a haven for those who are drawn to books, compelled to read and moved to write.
In honor of the store’s 40th anniversary, customers have submitted recollections and testimonials, and several authors have chimed in at my request. Here are some Elliott Bay memories. May there be many more.
“I liked being one of the 10-12 attendees for a reading by Raymond Carver years back. Yes, attendance was that small. Carver spoke — very — softly.
Hearing J.G. Ballard read was memorable, in part, for his bright-green silk tie. Rick Simonson said he couldn’t believe the store’s luck in being able to book him for a visit.”
— Brian Benson, Seattle
“The birth of Elliott Bay contained many challenges, especially where to locate and what to name this imagined ‘complete personal bookstore.’ Having found that most promising (and available) storefront at 109 S. Main St., ‘in the heart of Pioneer Square,’ the desire was to launch the store with a name appropriate to the newly inaugurated and flourishing historic-district neighborhood. Honoring the role our waterfront (that Bay) played in Seattle’s beginning, the name at founding became: The Elliott Bay Book Company.
“Having researched historical 19th-century photographs of the city’s waterfront, Seattle artist Nola Ahola created a dockside image of a trimast ship, waterfront lumber mill and Alki Point all worked into a freehanded oval logo — our trademark! With this inspiration, Marten Hagglund, who operated Architectural Art Glass studio in the Square, created the artistic stained-glass-logo window which has graced our entrance for ages.”
— Walter Carr, Elliott Bay’s founder and first owner
“The very first time we visited Seattle, before my husband and I moved here 10 years ago, I walked into Elliott Bay, went up the creaky stairs and found a discounted copy of a Mark Doty book I’d never seen in hardcover. Love at first sight.
— Brad Craft, University Book Store, senior used buyer, blogger at Usedbuyer2.0
“I used to think it was the actual physical space and accompanying acoustics — the creaky floors, the crowd of obscure tomes, the hum of book lovers in a purr of satisfaction — that made Elliott Bay so beloved, but I now think it’s something else. It’s vital, and irreplaceably so, to the lit life we have. In that sense, it wouldn’t matter what neighborhood it was in, or how high the ceilings were. As Dublin’s Abbey Theatre is to drama in Ireland, as Fenway Park is to baseball in Boston, Elliott Bay is to lovers of the written word in Seattle. That’s why, on a gloomy, dark Tuesday night in January, a hundred or more people will crowd Elliott Bay to hear an author who may have thought he or she never had a following.”
— Timothy Egan, National Book Award winner, Seattle author of “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher”
“My first poetry reading: a friend invited me along to hear Tess Gallagher on a rainy night at Elliott Bay. Tess, and her poems, her warm give and take with the packed crowd, Raymond Carver (not long after his death) invoked and present: I still hear her reading Carver’s poem ‘Woolworth’s, 1954’ to our delight. It felt important to all be sharing the same air.”
— Kathleen Flenniken, author of “Plume,” Washington state poet laureate
“The day after we moved to Seattle, Labor Day weekend 1989, we met friends at Elliott Bay Book Co. ... since that introduction we’ve returned many times over the years. In my role as librarian at The Northwest School I have had the privilege of planning our annual school fundraiser at EBBC (school families are invited to shop for gifts and purchase books for the school library).
“ ... One of my funniest memories is from 1992, the year my son was born. He was due a few days before our event, but luckily he was late. I remember running up and down the stairs between the bookstore and the cafe, when Tracy and Holly, to EBBC employees, asked me to please slow down! They didn’t want me to go into labor at the bookstore!”
— Nancy Highiet, Northwest School librarian
“My fiancé and the love of my life and I met while looking for the same book, ‘Still Life with Woodpecker’ by the illustrious and local Tom Robbins. A chance meeting turned into lattes in your delightful coffee shop and from there a romance of epic proportions was born. We are getting married this October and in November of 2012, we had our engagement pictures taken in the bookstore. Happy birthday Elliott Bay!”
— Jessica Howard
“All the best authors came to Elliott Bay. After a Richard Ford reading, he surprised me by asking about the novel I was working on. He knew from our mutual editor that it was not going well. He was generous and encouraging and I will always remember his graciousness.
“Writers are not always mutually supportive, but I think we always were at EBB. The building had a vibe that brought out the better angels of our nature.”
— Mark Lindquist, novelist and Pierce County prosecutor
“I used to be the unpublished novelist who drove up from Olympia to watch authors speak at Elliott Bay Books. That perfect little stage, about the size of Huck Finn’s raft, was the only stage I ever aspired to. I’d listen to an author and think, ‘Look at that lucky bastard.’ So now when I’m invited to speak there, I remind myself I’m a lucky bastard too.”
— Jim Lynch, Olympia novelist, author of “Truth Like the Sun”
“I remember listening on a typical gray and rainy Seattle afternoon to Oregon’s poet laureate, Paulann Petersen, reading and talking in the old store. There in the basement was a group of people, huddled together in the warmth and light, experiencing the beauty of her poetry. All around us and above us was the comforting weight of hundreds of years of literature.”
— Karl Marlantes, Woodinville author of “Matterhorn”
“One of my favorite memories of Elliott Bay Book Company didn’t actually happen ...
“I was with a group of other authors for a fundraiser at Ragdale, the writer’s retreat near Chicago, and Robert Hicks, author of ‘The Widow of the South,’ told a story about Elliott Bay which he swears is true but I dispute. He was on tour for his book — which was a big best-seller — and came to Seattle for a reading. Since Robert and I share an agent, Robert claims that our agent asked me to go to the reading to show my support.
“This was in the old Pioneer Square location. It was a dark, cold, rainy night. I arrived at the reading and introduced myself to Robert, then took my seat. In total, Robert claims, seven people showed up for the reading, including his publisher’s paid escort, two staff members of EBB, him, me and a homeless guy with a backpack. He says that everyone fell asleep except the homeless guy.
“Robert told this story at a dinner party with other authors. He then repeated it at a cocktail reception for Ragdale donors. He then told it at another dinner party. And then, for the entirety of the weekend we spent together, Robert told the story whenever a new person walked into the room. It always ended with the punch line, ‘And I looked over and Garth was not just asleep, his head was tipped back, his mouth was open, and he was snoring!’
“I swear none of this happened. I’m sure Robert Hicks somehow mistook Tim Egan or Sherman Alexie for me. Finally, after protesting the story the 10 times Robert told it, I took a different tack and responded by saying, ‘If people are falling asleep at your readings, Robert, is that their fault, or your fault?’ That seemed to quiet him down a bit. But if you know Robert Hicks, he doesn’t stay quiet for long!”
— Garth Stein, Seattle author of “The Art of Racing in the Rain”
“Once upon a midnight dreary ... no that is not how this starts, but it’s what I thought during my first Elliott Bay encounter in the late ’80s with a monthly gathering of young people who came dressed in black period costumes with lots of white face powder. They floated in small bands looking wan and breathless. They haunted the stacks in silence, with wide-eyed, seldom-blinking stares.
“Curious, I took to following these vampires/goths. Practicing a little neck sucking between feasts of Anne Rice, perhaps? Cat-woman obsessions, maybe? Dang it, I thought, a cult. Could need intervention. One evening without warning a thin fellow with deep-set eyes in blackened eye sockets approached me. I thought, ‘Oh dear I am so not prepared ... but I stood my ground and waited. With a motionless gaze fixed, he said, finally, ‘I’m looking for ‘Bunnicula,’ can you help me?’ I’m like, ‘The bunny? Really? Sure I can help you.’
“The Elliott Bay Book Company: 40 years of helping everyone even if you are a wayward vampire in search of your own private bunny.”
— Barbara Earl Thomas, artist and former Elliott Bay employee
“I’ve been on two book tours now, and Elliott Bay Bookstore has hosted the inaugural readings of both. It always feels like a bon voyage party; the house is packed with the home crowd, and I get my first glimpse of what bits of the book audiences will respond to (or not!) on the road. Rick and his team are more than just booksellers: they are enthusiastic supporters of local talent, community-builders and champions of the fine art of reading.”
— G. Willow Wilson, Seattle author of “Alif the Unseen”