Sunday, January 31, 2010
When I was home in Seattle a few months ago I took a trip to my favorite book store, The Elliott Bay Book Company, in Pioneer Square - the city's most historic neighborhood. Unfortunately, it was most likely my last visit at its current location. The bookstore is preparing to move to another part of the city. Considering the fate of many independent bookstores, this outcome is far from terrible. And reflecting on it objectively, I should actually be happy.
For those of you unfamiliar with Seattle, Pioneer Square captures perhaps the last glimpse into the origins of our modern city. While I have a hard time believing the commercial- residential buildings constructed in the last decade that include a Quizno's Subs and tanning salon on the ground floor will withstand the tests of time from an architectural standpoint, Pioneer Square with its brownstone edifices offered something different. This "difference" also included the aroma of stale beer and urine on the vast majority of its sidewalks. Yes, Pioneer Square is truly dying and with the loss of Elliot Bay it's destined to become an urban carcass of its former self. Notwithstanding the verbal assault by numerous panhandlers and con artists, I thoroughly enjoyed the trips into Pioneer Square to visit the bookstore. There is a certain sense of loss. Yet as I already said, the move will actually benefit me because Elliot Bay will now be located in an area I actually do frequent for its nightlife.
It was exactly for this reason that Elliot Bay was forced to move locations after a very difficult last 12 months in terms of sales. An independent bookstore relies on foot traffic, especially in the evening. And you can trust me that those going out in Pioneer Square after dark were not the same market segment likely to pop into the reading room to hear an author present her latest work.
I respect Elliot Bay's store as well as its business model and wish it the best of success! We should all be cheering it on as the outcome "post-move" will tell us a lot about what businesses will work and which will fail in the future. One mantra of business strategy is based around the belief that a company must either focus on being a cost leader or a high value-add specialist. Finding yourself in the middle is a recipe for disaster due to the competition you will face from both sides.
Elliot Bay Bookstore does not discount its books. In the days of Amazon, I know it is a hard concept to grasp that a bookstore may actually sell its goods at the list price found in small print on the back of the cover. But it is the case. They do this because they clearly recognize that a war based on price cannot be won against the likes of online retailers or massive chain stores. What they do offer is exceptional staff who know what they are talking about. My favorite thing to do there (and what can also be done in an excellent music or wine shop) is to go in with a set amount you want to spend, say $100, and let them recommend different books for you based on your interest. It is a great way to get guidance in new directions you may have not normally ventured and it is not something Amazon can offer you - even though they try.
However, as this move is eluding to, the specialization they are offering may still not be enough. It is my belief that our ever enduring quest for low prices is devastating large aspects of value and we are not fully aware of it. This value is what lies between a normal versus a basement bottom price. Before parting on too extreme of a tangent, I will just say that the subject of pricing will be further addressed in an upcoming post.
And how is this connected to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? I was in Madrid last July. It was a balmy afternoon and we had made an appointment to meet a friend who was getting off work for her lunch hour. She arrived toting the huge, hardback copy of this book. She was in full addiction mode and was unwilling to part with it even on her lunch break.
During my discussion with a salesperson at Elliot Bay a few months back, I noticed my basket of books becoming disproportionately overrepresented with non-fiction and I therefore asked him for a good piece of 2009 fiction. He pointed me towards this book and thinking back on my friend in Madrid, I grabbed it without hesitating.
It is certainly an engrossing story which combines mystery, sex, violence and Sweden. I consumed it in a couple of days much in the same way I would plow through a good TV series if I had the whole thing on DVD. It is entertainment above all else.