A love of books and bookstores runs deep in the sinews of this city, where gray skies and drizzle can drive a person to drink, or read, or both. A long-running annual survey ranks Seattle the country’s second-most literate big city, behind Washington, D.C., as measured by things like the number of bookstores, library resources, newspaper circulation and education.
Amazon.com Inc. also calls Seattle home. And in recent years, as many small independent bookstores here and around the nation struggled or closed their doors, owners often placed blame for their plight on the giant online retailer’s success in delivering best sellers at discount prices, e-readers and other commodities of the digital marketplace.
“They seem to be after everyone and everything,” one Seattle-area bookstore owner, Roger Page, fulminated on his store’s blog last year. He added, “I believe there is a real chance that they will ruin the publishing world.”
But now there are signs of a thaw in those tensions, at least here in the city that most embodied them. As Amazon has exploded with growth, hiring thousands of tech workers at its downtown headquarters and helping bolster the Seattle economy, local bookstore owners have seen a surprising new side of the company they loved to hate: Many Amazon employees, it turns out, are readers who are not shopping at the company store.
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Whether it is Amazon or something else, the broader pattern is unmistakable, said Oren J. Teicher, the chief executive of the American Booksellers Association, a national bookstore trade group. “Seattle has become one of the most successful independent bookstore cities in the country,” he said.
Tom Nissley, 46, a writer and former Amazon employee with 10 years at the company who lives with his family in northern Seattle, embodies this odd new détente. In his old life, he was a senior editor, helping Amazon promote and choose featured book titles for its website. Then, in 2010, he won enough money on the television quiz show “Jeopardy!” — about $235,000 as an eight-game champion — to quit his day job and write full time, publishing last fall a compendium of literary history and trivia, called “A Reader’s Book of Days.”
Last month, Mr. Nissley’s bookish-in-Seattle tale came full circle when he signed a contract to buy and run his own small independent bookstore.
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Part of Mr. Nissley’s optimism is that he believes local shops have increasingly found their feet in how to avoid competition with Amazon, or other giant retailers, by offering services or products that only a local can provide. He plans to offer, in addition to books, a line of paper goods, toys and vinyl handbags made by the business that his wife, Laura Silverstein, started.
He is also convinced, he said, that the e-book revolution, which seemed ready a few years ago to sweep away the old world of pages and print, has reached a plateau. Publishers, wanting to keep independent bookstores alive, have also helped — easing traditional repayment rules for books, or helping with promotions or advertising.