Bookstores in Seattle soar, and embrace a foe — Amazon

By Kirk Johnson / New York Times News Service

SEATTLE — A love of books and bookstores runs deep in the sinews of this city, where gray skies and drizzle can drive a person to drink, or read, or both. A long-running annual survey ranks Seattle the country’s second-most literate big city, behind Washington, D.C., as measured by things like the number of bookstores, library resources, newspaper circulation and education.

Amazon.com Inc. also calls Seattle home. And in recent years, as many small independent bookstores here and around the nation struggled or closed their doors, owners often placed blame for their plight on the giant online retailer’s success in delivering best-sellers at discount prices, e-readers and other commodities of the digital marketplace.

“They seem to be after everyone and everything,” one Seattle-area bookstore owner, Roger Page, fulminated on his store’s blog last year. He added, “I believe there is a real chance that they will ruin the publishing world.”

But now there are signs of a thaw in those tensions, at least here in the city that most embodied them. As Amazon has exploded with growth, hiring thousands of tech workers at its downtown headquarters and helping bolster the Seattle economy, local bookstore owners have seen a surprising new side of the company they loved to hate: Many Amazon employees, it turns out, are readers who are not shopping at the company store.

“A lot of our customers work at Amazon,” said Tracy Taylor, general manager at the Elliott Bay Book Co., one of the city’s largest independent booksellers. The store, about a mile from Amazon headquarters, last year earned what Taylor called the “first substantial profit” in almost 20 years, enough to even pay employee bonuses.

Whether it is Amazon or something else, the broader pattern is unmistakable, said Oren Teicher, chief executive of the American Booksellers Association, a national bookstore trade group. “Seattle has become one of the most successful independent bookstore cities in the country,” he said.