- The Stranger
- ELLIOTT BAY BOOK COMPANY On a quiet Monday morning. That customer taking photos called it "the most beautiful bookstore I've ever seen."
Elliott Bay Book Company is a much-loved literary institution that does all kinds of good for the community (you've heard of their free, nightly readings, right?). It's also a small-business success story. Five years ago, following the Great Recession, owner Peter Aaron "maxed out a line of credit just to keep operating," Seattle Times reported at the time. "He wasn't sure the store would stay in business."
Instead of panicking, or blaming customers, or blaming Amazon, or closing—which is what many bookstores have done—Aaron innovated to keep his store alive. He packed up everything and moved to an entirely new neighborhood with conditions better suited to a bookstore, even though it was a smaller physical space; he restructured the business itself, jettisoning the used-books wing of the store, for example; and he reduced the size of his staff from 36 employees to 28. They were all risky decisions, and the financial responsibility for the risks were on his back, but—thank god—the risks paid off.
"He says his business just managed to eke out a real profit last year for the first time in 15 years," KPLU reports. "To keep profits at that level with a minimum wage of $15 an hour, he’d have to let five of his 28 employees go." Having five fewer employees would not be a good thing for Elliott Bay's customers; anecdotally speaking, the store already feels a bit short staffed. The whole point of going to Elliott Bay is to have a personal interaction with someone who knows a lot about books, and the more you cut away at that community aspect of the store, the more inclined customers will be to buy books online, which would only hurt the store more.
Aaron is not the only small-business owner worried about the ramifications of an immediate, across-the-board jump to $15 an hour, but he's one of the few courageous enough to go on record publicly about it. We should listen to him. He deserves our respect. He saved a business that means a lot to this city, and he wants to raise the minimum wage—he just thinks this one-size-fits-all, $15-right-now-or-nothing approach to minimum wage policy could have disastrous effects for Elliott Bay Book Company. Most small-business owners aren't even speaking up yet, because speaking up has its own risks: Small-business owners are being pilloried right and left by righteous internet commenters for saying they don't know how to make a 60 percent jump in worker costs pencil out. Small-business owners are not the same as executives at Fortune 500 companies; they're a completely different species. And yet city council member Kshama Sawant, who's leading the charge, has yet to make a meaningful distinction between McDonalds executives and the owner of the independently owned taco stand next door.
At the end of the KPLU story, the reporter talks to "Nathan Jackson with the union-backed worker advocacy group Working Washington," whose position seems to be that if you raise the minimum wage to $15, those minimum-wage workers will spend that money on… buying books at Elliott Bay. With all due respect to Working Washington, that doesn't pass the smell test. Jackson is asking us to gamble this beloved institution, Elliott Bay Book Company, on his hunch that it will all turn out okay in the end.