Seattle’s retailers learn to survive in Amazon’s shadow

Small businesses found a way to co-exist with their tech neighbors — offering bespoke services that would be hard to find elsewhere.

Christy McDanold thinks Amazon has had quite enough free publicity in local news coverage. So the Seattle bookstore owner calls the company by a different name: Voldemort.

“It’s been in the news, above the fold, for years,” McDanold says in a conversation at her bookstore, Secret Garden Books, in a neighborhood made trendy over the past few years partly by an influx of Amazon workers. She refers to the e-commerce giant as Harry Potter’s evil nemesis from that point on in our conversation.

Despite the obvious bad blood, it’s perhaps fitting for a woman who runs a thriving book store in the same city as Amazon to cast herself in the famous novels. Much like the series’ heroes, McDanold and many other Seattle retailers have seen their world turned upside down and lived to tell the tale.

For the city’s longstanding family-run businesses, Amazon’s rise isn’t just a story of of change and survival. It’s also one of neighbors. As in the rest of the country, Seattle’s retail scene was greatly affected by the growing popularity of online shopping. The iconic strip of boutiques outside the University of Washington here, known as “The Ave,” has been replaced by a lengthy row of mostly food joints. Bookstores throughout the region shuttered as Amazon and other online retailers ascended. And Amazon’s physical presence added to the population of wealthy workers originally from out of state.

Those tech-oriented workers live cheek-by-jowl with everyone else, leading to a delicate relationship between shopkeeper and customer. “Everybody knows somebody who works there,” says McDanold, who bought her sunlit, general-interest bookstore in 1995. The store first opened its doors in 1977, meaning McDanold has run it longer than the previous two owners combined.

Retailers all say they’ve used a combination of elbow grease and business smarts to stay open. Rule number one seems to be, “Don’t try to compete with Amazon.” Rule number two? Find new ways to compete. Successful retailers now provide services on top of their wares, cultivate loyalty and offer specialized products that can’t be found online. Whether it’s an in-person fitting for a bridal veil, a personalized book recommendation from a cat-loving shopkeeper or custom Italian shoes designed for the Ballard neighborhood, the offerings are all charming and bespoke.

Some Seattle retailers sell wares through their websites or online, but others don’t. All rely on the local, personal feel of their stores to get by.

Amazon, which was founded in 1994 and sold its first book online in April 1995, declined to comment.

Fonts of knowledge

“A machine can’t replace me,” says Jamie Lutton, co-owner of Twice Sold Tales in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. The store is about a mile up Denny Way from Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, which is situated among condos and office towers in the South Lake Union neighborhood.

Watched by a fluffy marmalade cat lounging on the counter, Lutton explains her business model while sorting dozens of used books she’s just been handed by a regular customer. She’s organizing by value, using a memorized system. When she’s done, she pencils a price on each book’s inside front cover, never once consulting a computer.

What Lutton offers her customers — other than access to roaming kittens and colossal book stacks — is delightfully obscure book knowledge. She’s memorized the plots of 500 books and has fostered serious readers with her recommendations, she says.

Lutton laments Amazon’s Kindle readers and e-books displacing bookstores, and sees herself as a poor pastor in a small church of book-lovers. The Internet is like a megachurch, she says. “You’re still going to Jesus, but you’re not getting fed.”

Nonetheless, she loves being able to use Amazon’s technology along with her own knowledge to find a great product. Proving she can use a computer, she pulls up a description of an annotated copy of the 1961 children’s classic “The Phantom Tollbooth,” a version that relates how the author, Norton Juster, and illustrator, Jules Feiffer, met in a boardinghouse.

McDanold, who compared Amazon to he-who-shall-not-be-named of the Harry Potter universe, runs Secret Garden Books in Ballard on the strength of her community ties and a revitalized neighborhood chamber of commerce, of which she is a vice president. People in the area recognize her, she says.

“I’ll be at the grocery store, and people say, ‘Do you have this book?'”

That personal touch

Clothing stores have also been hit by online retail. Shoe store owner Maggie Burns says people come into her Ballard neighborhood shop to do that most hated of customer behaviors — “showrooming.” That’s when a customer looks around to see exactly what product they’d like, even trying it on, but then leaves to buy it online.

That behavior encouraged Burns to specialize the already tailored offerings at her store, Re-Soul. Formerly a product developer for Seattle-based Nordstrom, Burns used her connections in Italy to import custom shoes. They can’t be bought on Amazon.

“You have to be different than others,” Burns explains.

Similarly, Glenda Curdy says her custom bridal veils sell quite well from her store, Unique Bridal Boutique, in Seattle suburb Burien, where she also does haircuts. She closes up her shop each year in October and goes to Europe.

“Amazon can’t do what I do,” she says.

Many shopkeepers count Amazon employees as their customers. “It’s always a double-edged sword,” says Burns.

McDanold agrees, saying it takes a few years for people to “connect the dots” and realize how their purchasing habits affect their community’s shops. She invokes Joni Mitchell’s nostalgic classic “Big Yellow Taxi,” a song that laments the paving of paradise for a parking lot.

Even so, a few Amazon customers make a point of saying they’re in her bookstore. “Sometimes they say, ‘I work there, but I shop here.'”

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