On June 29, 1973, Walter Carr opens Elliott Bay Book Co. at 101 S Main Street in Pioneer Square. Carr will transform "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" (The Seattle Times).
Carr visited Seattle in 1973 and enjoyed the similarities to San Francisco. He had no experience in retail or in books, but he wanted a career change from college administration. The small shop added a cafe next door and ultimately expanded to 100,000 titles, 55,000 square feet, a graphics department, and 100 employees. Every year, 500 writers gave readings there.
In 1988, Iranian Ayahtollah Khomeni ordered author Salman Rushdie put to death for his novel The Satanic Verses. Book retailers feared that stocking the book would make them targets for terrorists. Carr ordered extra copies of the book for Rushdie's scheduled reading. Rushdie was forced to cancel, but the book sold out. In July 1990, Carr and Elliott Bay were featured in Newsweek magazine.
In the late 1990s, competition from chain bookstores forced Carr to find a buyer. In February 1999, he sold the store to developer Ronald Sher who owned Crossroads Shopping Center in Bellevue and Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.
It was not long before Sher sold the store to longtime employee Peter Aaron. A number of factors, including a major 2008 snowstorm that zapped holiday sales, a recession in 2009, new book-acquiring and book-reading technologies, and the historic but problematic location in Pioneer Square (where there was both a perceived lack of parking and a question of safety at night) caused the store to struggle. On April 14, 2010, the store moved to a new location, at 1521 10th Avenue on Capitol Hill, amidst celebration both in the neighborhood and throughout Seattle.