A Tribute to Elliott Bay Book Company

Book lovers in the greater Puget Sound region are fortunate that the Elliott Bay Book Company is not closing, but is only moving from Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill. Store closings are a fate all too common these days for independent bookstores nationwide. As I read in The Seattle Times last week about the store’s last day at the Pioneer Square location, I remembered an essay by Charles D’Ambrosio (“Seattle, 1974” included in his collection Orphans) in which he reminisces on his dissatisfied youth, his discovery of literature, and the role Elliott Bay Book Company played in his theretofore culture-starved life:

Later there was Elliott Bay Book Company, which offered both a bookstore and a brick-walled garret in the basement. You could loiter without having to skulk. You could bring your empty cup to the register and ask for refills. And you could read. Those books, more than any plane ticket, offered a way out. Admittedly it was a lonely prescription, an Rx that might better have been replaced by 100 mg of whatever tricyclate was cutting-edge back in the seventies. But who knew about such things?

D’Ambrosio would hide out in the store’s basement reading the modernists and taking notes, about which he says:

You could probably dismiss this as one of those charming agonies of late adolescence, but let me suggest that it’s also a logical first step in developing an aesthetic, a reach toward historical beauty, the desire to join yourself to what’s already been appreciated and admired…I was mad for relevance, connection, some hint that I was not alone. I started scribbling in notebooks in part just so I’d have an excuse, a reason for sitting where I sat, an alibi for being by myself.

The essay is largely about D’Ambrosio’s struggle to understand his connection to the changing character of Seattle over the decades. He finds it, partly, in the faded signs of businesses that have come and gone: “Early in the morning the painted signs on the buildings downtown seem to rise away from the brick in a kind of layered pentimento.”

The Elliott Bay Book Company of Pioneer Square now belongs to the past. May it long continue to nurture readers and memories in its new incarnation on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.