What started as a chance encounter almost 30 years ago blossomed into a career JB Dickey never expected.
Dickey, former owner of Seattle Mystery Bookshop, which closed September 30, 2017, checked out the store not long after it opened in the summer of 1990.
“I started with founder, Bill Farley, who needed help organizing his newly opened shop. I happened to walk in on the day he got his first, I think, 83 boxes of books,” Dickey said.
That day, Dickey worked for store credit, but Farley told him he didn’t need permanent help. A week later, Dickey returned and Farley asked when he could start. From there, Dickey worked one day a week to give Farley time to do bookkeeping.
“The shop just absorbed me over the years,” he said.
In 1998, Farley sold the shop to Dickey, but continued working there a few days a week.
Although he never saw himself as a small business owner, Dickey hated having to close the store.
“I wanted to continue doing it for the rest of my professional life, whatever that would be,” he said. “I wanted to keep exposing people to new authors and books. I thought we were a useful place where people could get all kinds of answers. That was part of Bill’s idea, was that we should be a resource for people. I’m just heartbroken that I couldn’t continue.”
Over the years, a changing retail industry added to the pressures of owning a small business. First came large bookstores, like Barnes & Noble. Dickey said the big corporate bookstores were allowed actions and finances that small independents just couldn’t match. Deep discounts from large chains and Amazon, the rising popularity of eBooks and the recession of 2008 all made for a difficult climate.
“Those kinds of forces were just rampant, and there’s no way for small independents to compete with them when you’ve got a city who is not paying any attention to small businesses,” Dickey said.
Seattle Mystery Books faced their own local challenges as well.
“For all 27 years we were there, people complained about traffic and parking,” Dickey said. “The city never seemed to do anything useful to make it better.”
He said mass transit makes sense for office workers but tends to drive shoppers away, which is counterproductive when trying to collect revenue from sales tax.
“The parking rates would go up, and then they put in the kiosks which wouldn’t take paper money,” he said. “People had to either come into businesses to ask for change or go to the bank, so it was confusing and aggravating shoppers, which is not how you want them to start their shopping time.”
Dickey said he felt like the city expected shoppers to take the bus or light rail to stores.
“The American public is used to driving to shop,” he said. “When your hands are full, you go back to the car to dump it, then go back to shop more. If you’re on mass transit, when your hands are full, you go home.”
Five or six years ago, Dickey said there was a meeting between three city councilmembers and Pioneer Square residents and business owners. The councilmembers said that Elliott Bay Books leaving Pioneer Square had been a shock and a wake up call.
“I thought how, if you’ve been paying attention, could something like that be a surprise?” Dickey said. “Traffic, parking, homelessness, the perception that it’s dangerous in Pioneer Square and downtown; it’s no wonder that Elliott Bay did and could leave.”
Although many of Dickey’s greatest challenges didn’t have anything to do with Seattle, he did not feel like he had the support of his city. Patrons of his store included two former mayors, police officers, prosecutors, city marshals, judges and jurors, but he never had anyone come and ask what they could do to make a difference when the shop began struggling.
“If the city doesn’t pay attention,” he said, “it’s just going to be a city of tourists and office workers.”
Still, Dickey says he would never try and talk somebody out of starting their own small business, or pushing back against challenges that arise.
“The American Booksellers Association keeps saying that not only are eBook sales flat, but printed book sales are rising. They are also saying more independent book stores are opening than closing these days; I would have to think that would go for most kinds of small independents,” he said. “Fight. Agitate. Stand your ground. Use your voice.”