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Jon Talton

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

December 10, 2009 at 9:15 AM

A bookstore moves, but the plot is still developing for Pioneer Square

Top of the News: To paraphrase Tolstoy, every struggling small business is struggling in its own way. Thus, it’s unfair to blame Pioneer Square for all the troubles of the Elliott Bay Book Co.

We should all hope — and vote with our dollars — that the iconic bookstore can reinvent itself in Capitol Hill. Yet this is also an urban neighborhood with its share of crime, the down-and-out and one not known for abundant parking. Meanwhile, the Seattle Mystery Bookshop continues business in Pioneer Square (disclosure: I am a mystery writer).

Running an independent bookstore is almost as rotten a business today as being a midlist author. In addition to competition from Borders, Barnes & Noble and, owners face huge inventory costs. Add in too much debt and the worst consumer pullback since the Depression and the consequences can be lethal — and they have been around the country with the attendant civic damage to those communities.

In Scottsdale, despite tons of parking, no homeless, little crime and no debt load, the famous Poisoned Pen Bookstore almost closed last year. It was saved, at least for now. But like Powell’s, another icon, in downtown Portland, it long ago began a brisk business online. Denver’s beloved Tattered Cover diversified its locations, including choosing one specifically because of its proximity to Coors Field (and in the cool Lower Downtown district, also lacking parking but people walk and take transit).

The challenge for city leaders is to figure out the specific real challenges facing Pioneer Square and address them. The loss of thousands of well-paid jobs at Washington Mutual is the calamity that keeps on giving, turbo-charging the general consumer pullback. Walk or drive along tony First Avenue and see the empty storefronts. Exurban shopping strips sit empty. It’s a scary time all over.

Pioneer Square is not, and should never be, a suburban schlock strip surrounded by huge parking lagoons. I shop there and throughout downtown partly because it’s not suburbia, because of the historic and urban experience. On the other hand, issues such as a better police presence seem worth a front-burner approach. Why isn’t the streetcar running (the excuses are unpersuasive). What can be done to further residential development, reuse of historic buildings and — importantly — retain existing businesses?

Pioneer Square is one of the finest city assets in America. To waste it would be a crime.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Let’s spread out the TARP

But still ask for no reform

Taxpayers get wet

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