The Best Bookstores in the World: Elliott Bay in Seattle
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In our travels, we always seek out a great local bookstore wherever we go. When in Seattle, we always find time for a stop at the charming, intelligent Elliot Bay Book Co. It’s one of our absolute favorites, and we think it’s one of the best bookstores in the world.
Founded by Walter Carr in 1973, the Elliott Bay Book Company was originally located in Pioneer Square, one of the oldest parts of the city, at 109 Main Street. It remained in the Globe Building for 35 years, expanding over time to accommodate author events and Seattle’s first bookstore café. Priced out of the original space as Seattle boomed along with the tech economy, in 2010, the store relocated to its current site in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Happily, the marvelous essence of the original store remains intact.
The fragrance that greets you as you enter the store is that delightful, indescribable, woodsy, comforting scent of an old bookstore or library: paper, bindings, hard-wood floors and cedar shelves, and the ineffable whiff of something wonderful. Words in the air – poetry and prose, laughter and tears, history and fiction. Whenever we smell it, we know we’re home.
Elliott Bay is home to over 150,000 titles, set on the cedar shelves from the original store. The multi-level space feels both rustic and refined: there’s wood everywhere — floors, shelves and beams — plus exposed metal pipes suspended from the unfinished ceiling, lending the store the air of an old industrial space.
Skylights provide rays of sunlight in unexpected places, adding to the charm and whimsy.
The long row of windows at the front also admit light – and emit the spirit of the season, whatever it may be (as you can see, our visit was pre-Halloween).
It’s an old space that feels steeped in history – a splendid place to browse, and dream, and discover.
The selections here are totally on-point. The shelves of new works at the front of the store had several of the titles we can’t wait to read. The over-sized placards of book covers from previously written novels are among our favorites (“Exit West!”). And we were thrilled to see so many of the novels we’ve read and loved prominently displayed and recommended by the store’s staff.
We love how many of the books come with a personal recommendation from a staff member. There’s a wall of recommended reads at the front of the store.
And other staff recommendations are prominent on slips of paper on the shelves throughout the store. Some of the staff descriptions and endorsements are themselves brilliant pieces of prose, almost all of them radiate an infectious enthusiasm.
Like the best local stores, Elliott Bay Books has a real sense of place. There’s a section dedicated to authors from the Pacific Northwest (we’re looking at you, Maria Semple!)
And even the cookbooks represent the heritage of some of the locals.
The kids’ section is enchanting, with its own cozy little castle.
Despite its charms, sometimes the little ones want to explore the grown-up sections, too.
Fast friendships are clearly formed during the parent-child story-reading sessions.
True to its heritage, there’s a café nestled at the rear of the store where you can linger over a coffee and pastry with your friends. Or you can go alone, and get some work done.
The first floor is full of activity, but we kind of love ascending the steps to the attic-like second floor.
Among other subjects, the second floor holds biographies, foreign language books, and discounted books. There’s also an extensive section on technology.
The store is mostly about books, but there’s a well-stocked magazine section, and a large selection of greeting cards and gift items, including tees and totebags.
There are even infant onesies for tiny bookworms.
On a cold rainy day, this golden space is a haven from the elements. On a crisp bright sunny one – like the one when we last visited – it’s a cheerful, invigorating stop on a glorious morning.
What makes for a wonderful bookstore? The physical space. The scent in the air. The selection of books – the breadth and depth of what’s available. The knowledge and friendliness of the staff. The engagement of your fellow customers. The availability of great coffee. Comfortable chairs, and plenty of them. A sense of whimsy. A deep respect for writers.
Elliott Bay Books has all of those in abundance, along with a sense that there is no other store exactly like this one – it has a personality, a sense of place, a terroir.
We love it. If you have a chance to visit, we suspect you will, too.