Seattle is the biggest small city (or the smallest big city, if you prefer) that I’ve ever encountered. I’ve traveled all over the world and seen people and things that connect back to the Pacific Northwest: a bartender in the British Virgin Islands who went to O’Dea High School on First Hill, or the schoolboy in Uganda wearing a Mariner’s baseball cap, or a KEXP t-shirt in a small Irish coastal town. This urban identity of home-grown grown up is presenting an odd comparison of local vs. big business, similar to “green washing” in the building industry – the act of appearing local and independent rather than actually being so.
When you go to the store, you’ll be hard pressed to find a product that is owned by the company on the packaging. Unilever, Nestle, Johnson & Johnson and a small handful of other companies own almost everything on the grocery shelves of national chains. Many local companies in the Seattle area are truly independent; some started that way, then got bought by larger companies but continue to perpetuate their former grass-roots identity. This is especially prevalent in Seattle’s two favorite beverages: coffee and beer.
“Who are Seattle’s hometown heroes? In many ways they are just like you and me. They walk the same city streets, with grand visions and dreams etched in their minds. They put on their shoes one at a time, then inspire us with their giant strides.”
These words adorn a bronze plaque in downtown Seattle, on the side of the flagship Nordstrom store. Growing up in the area, I’ve passed it many times, as well as the footprints of these “giant strides” from iconic Seattle entrepreneurs, politicians and artists – many of whom, like Olympian Apolo Ohno and baseball star Ken Griffey Jr., are pretty well known to people outside the Pacific Northwest. But as someone who has lived in Seattle for nearly my entire life (minus 7 years or so), there were some hometown heroes that even I hadn’t heard of!
Seattle is the iconic underdog city. It may not be as bustling as the Big Apple, or as glitzy as Hollywood, but it has undeniably carved out a special place for itself in American lore as a city of start-ups. Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon didn’t begin as household names. So what is it about Seattle that makes it ideal for kick starting independents?