Pike Place Market Strikes the Perfect Balance of Bureaucracy and Entrepreneurship, People and Profits, Past and Future

The creative tension at work in the market plays out across every sector of our economy.

This article appears in print in the March 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Ever since our office moved downtown a few years ago, one of my biggest joys has been periodically taking a break to experience the bustle and bedlam of Pike Place Market. I’ll go to Michou Deli and, if it’s not too crowded, buy a portobello mushroom sandwich piled high with cheese, roasted red peppers and greens. I’ll linger on the sidewalk to listen to a folk music duo or a lone banjo player, then make my way to Victor Steinbrueck Park to have lunch on a bench overlooking the sound.

As much as I have taken pleasure in these market visits, I seldom did my regular shopping there. With the produce so nicely stacked and the salmon toss so well choreographed, the market sometimes seemed like an elaborate sham, staged for the tourist.

But when Chin Music Press, which published a book I wrote, moved its offices to a quiet, lower floor of the market a few years ago to take advantage of the low rent, I spent more time in the less visited corners of the market and became curious about the machinery that keeps it humming even as so many department stores and shopping malls have struggled. Who decides what stores get a space in the market? And how are those decisions made?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but after editing and reporting on this month’s cover story, “The Market Economy," I have a newfound respect for the complex challenges involved in preserving this unique institution. The century-old buildings, the child-care center, the subsidized homes for seniors, the insistence on allowing only vendors who make their own crafts, the prohibition against stores that are branches of other stores and, most of all, the diverse people who work there every day are all part of the market’s magic.

The more that high-rises fill Seattle’s skies and coders fill the streets, the more I appreciate how well market authorities have managed to balance bureaucracy and entrepreneurship, people and profits, past and future.

Similar tensions play out across every sector of our economy, and it’s a thread you can follow through the pages of this issue. Consider how Janicki Industries, a hard-core maker of machine tools used to build aircraft parts, worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to design and establish a factory that processes human waste to produce fertilizer, energy and drinking water as a gift to the developing world. Or read about our Leaders in Health Care Awards honorees, who, while operating under complex codes, government regulations and an almost impossible payment system, nevertheless manage to devise new technologies and processes to improve the way they care for patients.

It’s the ability to redefine what might appear to be conflicting agendas and to explore new paths forward that helps make greater Seattle such a special place. The Pike Place Market is a constant reminder that bureaucracy can enforce rules while also encouraging innovation; companies can pursue profit while also doing good; all of us can pursue our careers while also honoring the values that make us human and searching for a life well worth living.

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