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Tuesday, March 9, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Closing The Book -- Elliott Bay Book Company's Walter Carr Hands Off To A New Owner

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

At Elliott Bay Book Company, the transition is almost complete. The exposed-brick walls of Walter Carr's office are bare, and Carr has taken home most of the personal belongings accrued through 26 years of owning the city's best-known bookstore.

Although he anticipates fielding questions at home during the coming weeks, Carr expects to have much of his work done by today.

It's a bittersweet moment.

After a dispiriting five years of battling corporate giants, he has lost. But in handing over ownership to another locally based independent, he has also won. And he is, at last, free.

"The loss of the joy I felt for the first 20 years became too much of a burden," Carr said. "Without the joy it becomes impossible to carry the burdens of the challenges you face. Joy is what keeps you working on the vision; it carries you above the petty challenges. If you lose that buoyancy, you become enmeshed in petty problems."

But during the good times, Carr transformed a one-room bookshop into a one-of-a-kind, nationally known institution that's largely acknowledged as the heart of the city's literary life.

Each year, Elliott Bay Book Company hosts about 500 author readings. Just this month, the store's teeming calendar includes appearances by National Book Award winner Charles Johnson, best-selling spy novelist John le Carre and actor Sandra Bernhard.

"I've succeeded beyond my wildest dreams," Carr said, hours after signing the papers that officially transferred ownership of the store.

But for the past five years, the store, like many independent bookstores around the country, has been struggling in the face of increasing competition from large chain stores like Barnes & Noble, price discounters like Wal-Mart, and online sellers like Amazon.com.

Last year, a battle-weary Carr began looking for a way out.

"The changes that have taken place in the book business have been personally defeating to me," said Carr, 55. Last month, Carr announced he was selling the store to a group led by Eastside developer Ron Sher, co-owner of Third Place Books.

"The last few years have been really, really tough," Carr said. "I felt like I was walking around with a 900-pound pack. And the load gets heavier when business begins to fail, when things aren't working out. It's more like bailing out a boat while trying to keep it on course."

Carr was 30 and a relative newcomer to Seattle when he opened shop in Pioneer Square, which was then being revitalized after decades of neglect.

"I've never taken a business course and never owned a bookstore. I just wanted to be in control," he said, adding that he knew immediately he wanted to run a bookstore.

At the time, Carr was looking for a career change. He had worked as a junior administrator at his alma mater in Colorado, but knew he wasn't interested in continuing in college administration. He came to Seattle to visit friends and liked its similarity to the San Francisco area, where he was raised.

Four years after jumping into the book industry, Carr married Maggie Rudow, a book buyer for Pacific Science Center. The couple met while buying books at a wholesaler and now have three daughters.

Elliott Bay's first two decades were a period of rapid growth. Twenty years ago Carr added a cafe, taking over the space below the store that had been occupied by a series of failed restaurants. The company later added a graphics services department, and by the early 1990s the store had about 100 employees.

But throughout the 1980s, there was also increasing competition from chain stores like Crown Books and Waldenbooks, although Elliott Bay's superior inventory and service helped it survive. Then five years ago the chains began to emulate many of the qualities that made the independents popular, and competition began to cut into Elliott Bay's profits. By last week's sale, the store's staff had dwindled to about 50 and the graphics operation was long gone.

Before last month's announcement, rumors abounded about possible buyers, from Robert Redford, who had entered retailing with his Sundance stores, to Amazon.com president Jeff Bezos. There was also widespread speculation that the store would simply close its doors.

In looking for a successor, Carr hoped to find a buyer who wouldn't destroy or change the store too radically.

"That would have broken my heart, if that had happened here," he said. "The money is not so important if you lose all that tradition. I can't imagine a chain running our operation."

Carr approached Sher late last year about selling the store. Unlike Elliott Bay Book Company, which sells newly published books, Sher's Third Place Books sells both used and new books. It was a strategy that Carr had recognized as essential for his store's survival, though he balked at taking on the financial load of adding an inventory of used books.

"It's a very different business, and I wasn't up to it," Carr said.

Carr also knew he was exhausted. He didn't want to hang on to the store and let it slide so far down that it would be beyond rescue.

On Wednesday, just hours after signing the papers that ended his ownership of Elliott Bay Book Company, Carr began the task he had fought five years to avoid: firing his entire staff.

One by one, from a young cafe worker hired just months earlier to a veteran book buyer who stocked the store's shelves shortly after it opened, the employees streamed into Carr's offices for a final tete-a-tete with their old boss.

The firings were a formality. As part of last week's changeover from one company to another, Carr had to let go of all his employees, though they would all be rehired by Third Place Books, the store's new owner. More than anything, it was a chance for Carr to individually thank his staff and for them to bid him goodbye.

Although Carr tried to keep the meetings lighthearted, joking with his employees about having to fire them, it wasn't possible to push back the looming veil of sadness.

After one of his employees gave him a goodbye hug and wished him well, Carr, clearly moved, sat silently for a few seconds to regain his composure.

"There's a lot of emotion in this . . .," he tried to explain, dabbing the corners of his eyes. "This feels very strange."

Carr's departure will also be felt by the broader Pioneer Square business community.

"He has allowed Pioneer Square to have a voice in city government because he's widely respected and admired," said Bif Brigman, owner of Laguna, a Pioneer Square business that sells collectible ceramics. "He made the best choice he could. Great men with vision are hard to come by."

Over the years, Carr has been a loyal supporter and a good friend who has selflessly offered counsel, said Anna Williams, co-owner of Ragazzi's Flying Shuttle, a women's clothing and jewelry store in Pioneer Square.

"I'm really going to miss him in the neighborhood," Williams said.

Carr says he has no clear plans beyond spending more time with his youngest daughter, 12-year-old Nora, and attending to long-neglected home and garden projects.

For years, the ferry to Alaska left from the pier just down the street from Elliott Bay Book Company. Its comings and goings were marked by the sudden ebb and flow of customer traffic at the store. Carr said he has never been to Alaska and has always dreamed of going.

He does intend to continue his involvement with a lawsuit by independents against Barnes & Noble and Borders, but the suit is still a year or more from trial.

"There are a lot of possibilities," he said, clearly relishing the thought. "I don't want to make any commitments at the moment. I just want to go out and sigh and let all the stress devils escape."

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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