Why Indie Bookstores in Seattle are Thriving

Amazon’s incursion into brick-and-mortar territory could have independent bookstores shaking with fear—again. Instead, they’re not just surviving in Seattle, they’re thriving

By Jean Riley


October 11, 2016

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Seattle Magazine.

Walking into the Amazon bookstore in the University Village shopping center is a little like entering a hybrid of an Apple store and a large airport bookstore designed to help you find a book fast. The store is long and narrow, with Kindle and Fire TV displays running down the center. On the shelves, all book covers face out, which is both lovely and slightly overwhelming. A large table bearing the label “Highly Rated, 4.8 Stars & Above” (based on Amazon reader data) dominates the entrance and contains a catchall of books; there is something for everyone, including the casual shopper who may be at U Village to shop at Pottery Barn or J.Crew and is just making a quick pit stop.

Throughout the store, books are displayed along with printed placards (no hand-scrawled missives from staff in sight) that remind browsers that “books are chosen based on customer ratings and reviews, pre-orders, sales, and popularity on Goodreads, plus books we love.” Virtually every book in the store is accompanied by a tidbit from an Amazon customer review.

In contrast, there is Third Place Books a mere 1 and a half miles away, located on a busy corner on NE 65th Street in Ravenna. Inside, it feels like someone’s large living room, although one cluttered with books on multiple tables and bookshelves. The shelves, with primarily the books’ spines showing, encourage browsing and offer the surprise of discovery. There are signs on some tables indicating best-sellers, newly arrived titles and the like.

Absent is any sign of an electronic reading device or crowdsourcing data. In the back, customers sit at tables enjoying coffee and a snack along with their books; including a cafe is a hallmark of the region’s three Third Place bookstores.

And the staff at these two stores? Surprisingly similar in helpfulness, but with a different focus. When a young female bookseller at Amazon is approached for information, she gives spot-on, best-selling recommendations after the customer
describes the type of books she is interested in. At Third Place, a young staff member notices the perplexed look on a customer’s face and asks if help is needed. When he understands what the customer is seeking, he suggests a book written in 1962 and two others that, though unfamiliar to her, he thinks might fit her reading preferences.

These experiences offer some insight into the selling strategies behind each store—one focusing on data; the other on personalized service. Each may be valid. But it’s likely that many customers also see some irony in this scenario: the world’s largest online bookstore delving into brick-and mortar territory.

The past few decades have been challenging for independent bookstores, with each decade seeming to bring on a new threat: First, there were the huge chains that dominated the retail landscape. Then, there was the shift to online shopping, followed by the invention of electronic–reading devices. And now, the entry of Amazon into brick-and-mortar territory with its first store in Seattle. Yet despite some trepidation expressed by area booksellers leading up to Amazon’s store opening last year, the indie scene here is undergoing a quiet renaissance, as evidenced by the spring opening of Third Place Books in Seward Park, bookstore buyouts and one of the most successful Independent Bookstore Days the city has experienced.

The sheer number of independent bookstores in our area is impressive. Seattle boasts almost 30, most of which are members of the American Book Association (ABA) and at least a half dozen that aren’t, including secondhand shops such as Leisure Books, Pegasus Book Exchange and Twice Sold Tales; comic-focused Fantagraphics in Georgetown; and the quirky Asian gift and book emporium Kinokuniya in the Chinatown–International District. Compare that to cities similar to Seattle in population, such as Boston (with approximately 25, including used-book stores and many college-affiliated ones) and Baltimore (with about a dozen), and you understand how vibrant our offerings are. Compare Seattle to cities with massive populations and we still stack up. San Francisco has 34 ABA-member bookstores and Chicago, 38.

So, what’s the secret sauce here? One of the ingredients is our increasing devotion to shopping local, says Jenn Risko, publisher and cofounder of Seattle-based “Shelf Awareness,” an online newsletter for the book trade and consumers, and a fierce independent-bookstore advocate. “The Seattle community understands what it means to vote with your dollars,” she says.

David Glenn of Penguin Random House agrees, to a point. A Seattleite, he has sold books to indies in the Pacific Northwest (with a stint in the Bay Area) for the publishing behemoth for 27 years. “The Northwest is not unique in its ‘buy local’ campaign,” he says, but he concedes that it seems to be particularly well-received in Seattle. The growing educated population here, as well as a higher median income (“about $65K, compared to the national average of $50K,”) may have something to do with that.

Beyond the success of “buy local,” the city is rife with organizations and events that draw authors to town, from Hugo House and Lit Crawl to Seattle Arts & Lectures and Town Hall—all of which drum up interest in specific writers and titles, and consequently, bookstores.
“Anytime a bookstore comes up for sale in Seattle, someone buys it,” says Glenn. “This is not an indication of a beleaguered industry.” Queen Anne Book Company, Phinney Books, Eagle Harbor Book Company on Bainbridge Island, Island Books on Mercer Island—all four stores (or their former spaces) were purchased by new owners rather than being shuttered. Two other bookstores were saved by crowdfunding: Seattle Mystery Bookshop and Wide World Books and Maps.

Seattle independent bookstores may also be benefiting from some farsighted thinking in the publishing industry. Nationally, publishers are still sending their sales reps to independent bookstores in the same numbers. “Even though, collectively, sales at indie channels are smallish compared to chains and online [$525 million annually vs. $13.9 billion for physical books in all channels, including online, chain bookstores and specialty stores like Urban Outfitters, according to the ABA], they can still have a very outsized effect in the sales of certain kinds of books,” says Glenn. He is talking specifically about the midlist titles, those by new authors with modest first printings.

Indies can command a significant share of those, says Glenn. “They can sell a large percentage of the first-year net sales on a novel that might not have been predicted by the publisher to make much money at all.” And they do it through passionate selling to individual customers, by a groundswell of local buzz and with author events that online retailers like Amazon can’t replicate.
“They are places where you can incubate new authors. Elliott Bay is a perfect example,” he says, referring to one of Seattle’s biggest independent bookstores, The Elliott Bay Book Company. “They have several events a day, and [feature] authors that might not find a willing forum or audience.”

Janis Segress, former head buyer for Eagle Harbor Book Co. and co-owner of The Queen Anne Book Company, agrees. “Publishers are continuing to spend big dollars on events with authors. And they come to Seattle and court us because they are aware that the indie bookstores drive trends.” She points to The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, the book that went on to become a number one New York Times best-seller, about the University of Washington’s eight-man rowing team that won gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. “It wasn’t on anyone’s radar. It started in the Pacific Northwest and then went national.” It’s that kind of magical, collective support, both for books and the community, that Segress believes will ultimately help independent bookstores continue to thrive, despite competitors like Amazon.

What makes the indie bookstore here so different? Segress, who opened a new Queen Anne bookstore with two partners and a new name after its previous owner had closed it, believes it’s about knowing the community. “I chose to open with just one-third of our current inventory. The first year was really about filling the store with what the community wanted while balancing national and Pacific Northwest trends.” There is also a synergy with next-door neighbor, El Diablo Coffee Co. The two spaces, which share an outside deck, flow into each other perfectly and offer that unique community experience—as well as an antidote to the uniformity of malls and chain stores.

The community experience is embraced by other local booksellers, including Pam Cady at University Book Store, who donated loads of shelves to Segress when she was opening The Queen Anne Book Company. Third Place Books has deliberately worked to create communities within its own walls, drawing readers in not just with books, but also with cafes and meeting places. Its newest store in Seward Park uses the mixed-space concept perhaps the most fully, with an upscale restaurant, Raconteur (with full bar and a coffee bar, and run by the Flying Squirrel Pizza Co. folks), on the premises.

Some in the local industry also believe that there has been a shift regarding how focused customers are on price—and that the phenomenon is making indie alternatives like Amazon less formidable today than a few years ago.
In 2008 and 2009, the pricing of e-books was a major issue, says Robert Sindelar, vice president of the ABA and managing partner of

Third Place Books, along with business partner and real estate developer Ron Sher, who founded Third Place. During those recession years, Sindelar struggled as customers tried to aggressively negotiate with him to match Amazon’s prices—often putting a book down because it was $25 instead of $20. That time, together with the rise of the e-reader and the doubling of gas prices, created “a perfect little storm of challenges.” But, he notes, “we’ve been steadily gaining back market shares since then.”

The awareness of shopping local and the personal touch of bookstore staff recommendations helped turn the tide, but Sindelar also says that at least some readers lost interest in e-readers when they discovered that browsing books on a device isn’t the same as in a store. “A lot of people came back realizing that ‘I’m not reading as much as when I had a stack of books next to my nightstand,’” he says.

Readers’ passion for good, old-fashioned books is surely part of the success equation for all bookstores, and nothing shows that off better than Independent Bookstore Day, held each spring (on April 29 next year). Participating bookstores in cities throughout the U.S. offer promotions and discounts, limited-edition items, and a chance for shoppers to check off as many visits as possible on a card and win prizes accordingly. 

“Indie bookstore day…when I talk to other booksellers in other communities, there are not a lot of other cities that can pull it off the way Seattle did,” says Sindelar. “They wouldn’t have the density of stores.…We all get together in the same room and say, ‘I’m going to promote you and you’re going to promote me.’ We tend to feel that, hey, if you’re doing well, then I’m going to do well, too.”

Sindelar is also buoyed by publishers’ support for Independent Bookstore Day. They’ve not only contributed money for marketing materials, but also specialty items, available that day at discount, including a Neil Gaiman coloring book—as well as their overall investment in making sure small bookstores thrive.

“When Borders went away, that affected publishers tremendously. [It] made them think: ‘What if this happens more? If there were less physical bookstores, what would this mean for our industry?’ The reality is that well-stocked bookstores are vital to book discovery,” he says.

One of the biggest boons to indie bookstores, courtesy of publishers, was the addition of West Coast distribution centers, Sindelar explains. Now, a Seattle bookstore can get a requested title in a week or less. It used to take at least two weeks, when inventory came from an East Coast warehouse. 

But while things are looking up for area independent bookstores, challenges abound. One of the biggest may be finding a way to convert the occasional customer into a frequent customer, say Sindelar and Glenn. Dedicated independent-bookstore shoppers make up a small percentage of readers. Indie bookstores need to reach the people on the next tier down, those who buy occasionally and are usually more motivated by price and convenience. “The average person only reads like three books a year. If just 1 more percent of the American population were book readers, it would be a real boon to the industry,” says Glenn. Sindelar couldn’t agree more, adding that his ultimate goal is to give a casual reader an exceptional experience—one that will spur that person to visit an indie bookstore again and to realize that “if this felt good, it’s just the beginning.”

Why Do Seattleites Love Indie Bookstores?
We posed the question on our social media channels, and here are some of the tweets and Instagram posts that poured in:

Friendly, knowledgeable staff that turn me on to new authors and titles and they’re invested
in community.
@Whitney Johnson

Million reasons. 1: b/c each is an individual experience & I see books I wind up loving that no algorithm would ever choose4me. @Catherine Bull

Elliott Bay Books is one of my favorite places on earth…the people, the book smells, the creaking floors.
@Austin Walters

Independants like Left Bank, (at 92 Pike) are “treasure hunt” shops with staff who really know books. Not so @ big box stores.
@Dion Mkiva

I shop Seattle indy bkstores because staff highly knowledgeable, know my readg tastes
& make gr8 suggestions!
@Ross C. Baker

Shop at @ElliottBayBooks and @Adason15th b/c I like staff recs. People who know books give good recs by hearing what *you* like
@Amy Kelinda

Same reason I shop @EasyStRecords, support local business & get to know community!
@PegasusBookEx @Karma

@phinneybooks is such a warm and inviting neighborhood bookstore. Their window displays are so charming and my dog loves them and their dog cookies.
So knowledgeable.

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