Find Posts By Topic

OED’s Michael Wells named  PSBJ Outstanding Voice Honoree

Michael Wells, small business advocate

When working with small business owners, Michael Wells, small business advocate, leads with empathy. He owned an independent bookstore, so he understands the challenges and the joys of running a business.

It’s because of that work, particularly his work advocating for businesses in the LGBTQ+ community, that the Puget Sound Business Journal named Michael as one of the 2024 Outstanding Voices honorees. The Outstanding Voices program started in 2016 to celebrate the business leaders working “to make Seattle a place where people all across the spectrums of gender and sexual orientation can find opportunity and appreciation.”

Get to know Michael, his journey to becoming a small business advocate, and get some book recommendations:

What brought you to the Seattle Office of Economic Development?

Small businesses are in my blood, having owned and operated one for 20 years in Capitol Hill.  I worked with the City on many small business fronts as both a business owner and the director of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce and the Broadway Business Improvement Association for many years. Being an advocate for small business as an external partner with City departments taught me the ins and outs of navigating City resources. I joined the City in 2016 hoping to bring his experience to the Office of Economic Development in service to small businesses across Seattle.

What’s your favorite part about being a small business advocate?

The best part of this work is talking directly with small businesses about their experiences, their dreams and desires, and doing my damnedest to support them in making those dreams a reality.  Every small business holds the hopes and dreams of someone and it’s an honor and a privilege to help support those and listen to the stories of small business owners themselves.

You owned an independent bookstore. What led to that?

I came to Bailey/Coy Books in 1989 fresh out of college as a part-time, nights and weekend clerk. I had always worked in bookstores and libraries. Bailey/Coy Books was at the intersection of books and the LGBTQ+ community, which was a dream space for me. 

Eventually I started a reading series and community events in partnership with local LGBTQ+ organizations, and ended up managing the store. Barbara Bailey, the founder of Bailey/Coy Books and I worked together to create a pathway to ownership, and I became owner of the bookstore upon her retirement.

While I’ve maintained my work in small business after the bookstore closed in 2009, I will always be, first and foremost, an independent bookseller and will always be a lifelong advocate for small, independent, locally owned businesses.

How does your experience as a business owner help you as you’re working with business owners now?

I speak their language.  I know the daily operational challenges and joys of running a brick-and-mortar neighborhood business and I can help translate government-speak to our small business owners. I know what it’s like to worry about payroll, inventory, and rent – all the while navigating city construction or public safety challenges. That experience gives me not only empathy for the small businesses I serve but also a passion to improve City systems to better serve their needs. I think business owners’ sense that and trust that I will elevate and advocate on their behalf with integrity.  And decades of customer service experience also doesn’t hurt…

How did you become involved in the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce?

At the bookstore I was a member of the Broadway Business Improvement Association. The City of Seattle engaged us in 2004 in a Broadway Vitality Action Plan, which led to the formation of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce. I was the first board president of the Chamber and when the former director stepped down, I was asked to take their place as Executive Director.

Capitol Hill is a very special place in the LGBTQ+ ecosystem; the heart of the City’s LGBTQ+ community and a neighborhood where I’ve lived and worked for three decades now. I was honored to be able to serve my fellow Capitol Hill small business owners through the work of the Chamber. 

Capitol Hill is a neighborhood of dreamers and folks looking for utopia on a variety of fronts and it was the home I had searched for most of my life. Supporting this neighborhood was a pleasure and spoke to my own values around the importance of place in the LGBTQ+ experience.

Can you talk about the importance of making sure LGBTQ+ business owners not only have opportunities in Seattle’s economy, but feel supported?

Particularly at this moment in our history it is vital that government agencies and municipal bodies are listening to LGBTQ+ voices on issues of public policy, civil rights, and economic opportunity.

When a member of the LGBTQ+ community opens a small business, they are taking up space, telling their own story, creating visibility, and passing on stories of economic opportunity and independence to a new generation of queer folks. I believe this is all a part of our common project as human beings; telling our stories, leading with dignity and equity, and creating systems that support those values. Cities, the City of Seattle in particular, should be leaning into that. I like to think that I’m a part of helping to create positive change on that front.   

How can the public help make sure they’re supporting LGBTQ+ businesses?

Any business owner (or former business owner, in my case) worth their stuff will say that first and foremost, supporting our LGBTQ+ businesses with your dollars is the most important way to help them survive and thrive in a challenging economy. 

But you can also share their stories with friends, new and diverse customers, and magnify your support through your own social media channels and interactions with others. Shop Small, Shop Local, Shop Queer. It makes a global difference. 

It also helps our community to achieve financial independence and self-determination.  It’s a good deed in a world sorely needing good deeds.

What are your go-to book recommendations for readers looking to explore more titles by LGBTQ+ authors?  

Oh, my – that’s a big question. 

There are so many new voices, Henry Hoke (Open Throat), Jen Beagin (Big Swiss), Julian Torres (who won the National Book Award last year for his magnificent Blackouts), Justin Chin (When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities) and so many more. 

But I’ll always have a soft spot for the pioneers of queer lit; Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Rita Mae Brown, James Baldwin, Patricia Highsmith, Christopher Isherwood, Maurice Sendak… Best of all – ask a queer bookseller!  Seattle has a new queer bookstore, Charlie’s Books in Fremont. Stop in and say ‘hi’!