One of the Nation’s Best – The Elliott Bay Book Company

A Gem still Glows

Eighteen years ago I visited Seattle for the first time.  It was our first weekend trip away from a job I hated and a city I swore I would never live in (now I realize I’ll live in Los Angeles for the rest of my life, but I did get rid of that job).  The angst I felt over all the changes in my life lifted the moment I walked into The Elliott Bay Book Company.  I found a book during that first visit about living in suburbia; the recommendation card described the tedium of living in tract housing as the constant evenly paced whoosh of a Rainbird sprinkler.  The description struck me, so I bought the book.  It detailed the brain-numbing monotony of suburban life.  Whenever I drive through tract housing I feel that oppression.

Interestingly enough, during my recent trip to Elliot Bay, I bought two more books about home life (really, they have over 150,000 titles, the breadth and depth of the store is amazing, I just seem to have a theme whenever I go there).  When I walked into the store I was a bit overwhelmed by all of the choices.  In front of me as soon as I entered where four 9 foot or taller bookshelves full of staff recommendations.  I wanted all of them.  More recommendations were spread among the various subjects.  An entire bookshelf is dedicated to recommendations for books groups (plus book groups can meet with a staff member to discuss recommendations for their group and tips on how to keep the conversation on topic).  I gave up trying to make a decision and asked the woman at the information desk if there was a unique book she liked.  She had two that she talked about as we walked over to the books (I learned later that employees are trained to walk the customer over to the book they’re asking about chatting with them the entire way, I loved it).  The first was Cost by Roxana Robinson, a story of what all of us give up for family.  I haven’t read it yet, but I’m looking forward to it.  Hmm, is this the appropriate book to be reading around the Christmas tree surrounded by family?  Maybe not. 

Book Review

The second book was The Story of Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer, she said the book did a wonderful job showing that spouses never really know each other.  But the author is young, in his thirties, what, has he been married 15 minutes?  Well, I read this book and the young author has some interesting insights on assumptions in marriage and the problems resulting from a lack of communication.   The basic storyline is how Pearlie’s view of her husband from their childhood and their marriage changes when a person from his war years returns and alters their lives.  What drove me nuts is that Pearlie and Holland, the husband, never discuss the issue, they communicate about this vital topic only through this ghost from his past.  For me, the book becomes a bit of a stretch, but I discuss everything with my husband, he actually might like a little bit of Pearlie in his life.  Pearlie wonders about marriage and the role of a wife through the sentencing of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.  Why didn’t Ethel turn on her husband to be with her kids?  To whom does she have the greatest loyalty?  The question of loyalty comes up in the Rosenberg’s marriage, Pealier and Holland’s marriage and the actions of the boys who did not fight in WWII, either as a result of conscientious objection or fear. Interwoven in the story is a picture of life for a black family at the end of the Korean War and a peek into the culture of a nation awakening to its promise after WWII.

The List of Qualities

Elliott Bay has an amazing amount of features that support its nationwide fame, here’s a bullet point list of what is wonderful:

  • A coffee shop serving organic food and coffee that inhabits the entire basement.  Rumor has it that the coffee shop in “Frazier” is based on this one.
  • Book clubs every Tuesday night at 6:30:  The Elliot Bay Book Club discussing contemporary fiction on the first Tuesday; The Global Issues and Ethics Book Club discussing modern problems and maybe even solutions on the second Tuesday; Speculation, the SciFi and Fantasy group on the third Tuesday; and, Stages, for readers of new and classic dramas on the fourth Tuesday.  The books for each group on the website, a handy recommendation guide if you love the genre but don’t live close enough to attend.
  • Maiden Voyage First Edition Program – the store sends out a hardback first edition of an author’s debut novel.  One past choice was The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize.  Membership is $150 a year.  Hmm, another holiday or birthday gift that would keep on giving all year long.
  • Elliott Bay gives back to the Seattle community with Books for Change.  A percentage of sales from chosen books are donated to charity.  When I was there the choice of books related to the organization for that month, but also included several fiction and non-fiction bestsellers such as Master Pip by Lloyd Jones.
  • The staff will assist with corporate sales, either arranging for the appropriate book for an entire office or client list or a variety of hand picked books for a particular business.
  • Almost nightly author visits from the entire range of authors from the stature of Frank Rich and John Irving to the new unknown author who could be tomorrow’s Phillip Roth.  In fact, right now the opening page for the website is a recollection of the Obama’s visit when he toured the nation for The Audacity of Hope.
  • Staged Play Readings occur from May to October (the less rainy months?), each month is a staged reading of a play.
  • Last but certainly not least, each quarter Elliot Bay publishes Elliot Bay Booknotes a summary of recommended books of various genres.  Bookmark this page and remember to return to it on each Equinox and Solstice.

A Closing Gift

The entire time I was reading The Story of Marriage, I kept thinking of a poem I heard Mary Oliver read last winter.  I was in Royce Hall with hundreds of other people and you could have heard a pin drop, we all sat mesmerized by the poetry of this tiny woman.  After almost 20 years of marriage, I think this one is the most beautiful love poems:

The Whistler

All of a sudden she began to whistle. By all of a sudden

I mean that for more than thirty years she had not

whistled. It was thrilling. At first I wondered, who was

in the house, what stranger? I was upstairs reading, and

she was downstairs. As from the throat of a wild and

cheerful bird, not caught but visiting, the sounds war-

bled and slid and doubled back and larked and soared.

Finally I said, Is that you? Is that you whistling? Yes, she

said. I used to whistle, a long time ago. Now I see I can

still whistle. And cadence after cadence she strolled

through the house, whistling.

I know her so well, I think. I thought. Elbow and an-

kle. Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic. Anger too.

And the devotions. And for all that, do we even begin

to know each other? Who is this I’ve been living with

for thirty years?

This clear, dark, lovely whistler?

Thank you, Mary Oliver.

Elliott Bay Book Company
101 South Main Street
Seattle, WA 98104
T: 206.624.6600

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