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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

October 19, 2009 at 9:15 AM

Elliott Bay’s troubles had better shelve Seattle’s complacency

Top of the News: If trouble at Elliott Bay Book Co. doesn’t light a fire under city leaders, we’re witnessing more than a crisis at an iconic Seattle retailer.

Small-business woes are often opaque. One never knows what management missteps were taken, what risks blew up with no safety net, what eccentricities dragged a company to the brink. Elliott Bay already lives in a world of predators — the big chains and (cue irony music) Amazon.com. It is facing the worst recession since the Great Depression, and one marked by a historic consumer pullback.

And, like many small- and mid-sized businesses, it is finding the credit markets still frozen, however much Goldman Sachs has profited from your tax dollars. They aren’t listed on the Dow. They gain no benefit from the return of leverage to the private equity market in its ongoing fire sale of America’s productive wealth.

But Elliott Bay is more than a small business. It is one of the touchstones that make Seattle special. It is a pillar of one of America’s most enchanting neighborhoods, and one that should be a world-beater but still struggles. Elliott Bay and Pioneer Square are among the assets that attract talent to this region — that keep it from being Tulsa or Phoenix or hundreds of other anodyne American cities that have lost their souls.

Its failure would resonate far beyond the local economy or its considerable effect on tourism. If this isn’t an “all hands on deck moment,” I don’t know what is.

The Back Story: How bad is it outside the golden temples of Wall Street? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs were lost in 323 of the 334 largest counties from March 2008 to March of this year. Elkhart County, Ind., in the manufacturing heartland, led the way with a 23.4 percent employment decline. King County dropped 3.9 percent and the national average was 4.2 percent.

In total employment lost, Los Angeles County led the way with 207,000, followed by Maricopa County, Ariz. (Phoenix) with 134,000. Nine out of ten large counties saw wages fall. The exception: King, with a 0.2 percent increase.

Today Econ Haiku:

Forget the tunnel

Ignoring the book store’s woes

Will bury this town

Comments | More in Amazon.com, Entrepreneurship

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