In a non-descript, four-story building, around the corner from Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos once sat in a tiny office with stained carpets. His view from the cluttered space on the fourth floor overlooked Second Avenue and a city yet to be wholly transformed by his book-selling internet startup.
Standing last week in the space where Bezos’s office used to be, the mess of boxes and books were long gone. The narrow hallways had been gutted. There were no offices crammed into the closets. The hundreds of Amazon employees who helped build the company in its earliest years had long since moved out and morphed into many thousands.
But in the eerily quiet building, it was hard not to imagine Bezos’s signature laugh bouncing off the walls.
“The company has become in part what it is because we all worked our butts off down there,” said former Amazon employee Erica Jorgensen as we circled the block and then climbed the dusty stairwell inside.
So much has given way to Amazon and the growth of the tech giant in its hometown. As the company has reimagined the city with its urban campus north of the downtown core, old buildings have come down and new skyscrapers have risen.
And now, blocks from Amazon’s headquarters, a piece of its own history is slated for demolition. The Chromer Building, or Columbia Building as it was known when Amazon occupied two floors in the late 1990s, is not surrendering to the glass and steel of another Amazon tower. But the condo project that will replace it is still a symptom of change fueled by the company and its tech brethren.
In 2019, as Seattle grapples with unprecedented growth brought about in large part by the tech economy — including more than 45,000 Amazon employees in the city — the company itself is outgrowing its hometown much like it outgrew 1516 Second Ave. some 20 years ago.
To witness an empty office building that gave rise to its earliest successes, and to hear from employees who helped fuel that success, is to step back in time, to relive a pivotal chapter in the story of a startup that would go on to become one of the world’s most influential companies.
Door desks, dogs and that laugh
Amazon has obviously employed many thousands of people over the past 24 years. Only a handful can say they were there at the beginning, whether they were alongside Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos from day one — or rather, Day 1 — or whether they jumped aboard in the first couple years as growth started to become a reality for the online book retailer.
GeekWire spoke to four such employees after learning that some were reminiscing in a private Facebook group called “Amazon Old Skool” about the planned demise of what they knew as the Columbia Building. It was the fourth office location for the young company, after starting in Bezos’s Bellevue, Wash., garage and then moving to spots south of downtown Seattle.
The building, built in 1906 and renamed the Chromer Building after a sale in 2013, was sold again last summer for $32.5 million, and developer Pinnacle Plus Development LLC of Bellevue plans a 45-story condo tower on the site. They’ve built a website, but plans submitted to the city offer more insight on scope and design for the mixed-use project which will feature retail and as many as 500 residences.
Much like the neighborhood of South Lake Union that Amazon has turned from scrappy warehouses to modern tech offices, the building’s future will be a radical departure from its past.
“It was frightening. It was dark and had this creepy vibe to it,” said Jorgensen, who was the second copy editor and somewhere between employee No. 50 and 75 when she started at Amazon in 1997. She provided GeekWire with seating charts for the second and fourth floors from March of that year — just a couple months before the company went public.
The only tenant left in the building now is Lime, the San Francisco-based bike-sharing operation, which has a small office at street level. We walked through their space and up a back stairwell last week.
Standing in what was once Bezos’s office on the now-empty fourth floor, Jorgensen recalled the absolute clutter of books. Narrow hallways framed by cubicle walls led to tiny offices, and people seemed to be crammed into every usable space. Looking at the seating charts she rattled off the names of dozens of early employees and where they came from and where they went if they’d since left Amazon.
Jorgensen didn’t build her own famed “door desk” but she said she had to modify it with a hacksaw, chopping a couple inches off the legs. She was in a different office location by Feb. 28, 2001, when the 6.8-magnitude Nisqually earthquake hit Seattle. The sturdy desk came in handy as a hiding spot.
Bezos’s own door desk and his stained office carpets, along with the seedy surroundings outside the Columbia Building, were broadcast to a nation in a 1999 “60 Minutes” segment on Amazon. Reporter Bob Simon starts by offering his impression of the neighborhood before locating Amazon’s HQ.
“Upstairs it doesn’t look very high tech either. More like a college dorm than a corporate headquarters,” Simon said in the classic video. “And then there’s the boss. You generally hear him before you see him. It’s the ear-piercing laugh of billionaire Jeff Bezos.”
Simon greeted Bezos and proceeded to mock his workspace.
“Come on,” Simon said. “I mean, you can afford a better desk than that.”
“It’s a symbol,” Bezos replied, “of spending money on things that matter to customers, and not spending money on things that don’t.”
“And you don’t need clean carpets,” Simon responded.
The place has been emptied, and the stained carpeting is gone, but outlines for office walls are still visible on the wood floors. Old timber columns stand out and a brick wall has been exposed. Looking at the seating charts provided by Jorgensen, we pictured which way Bezos would turn to visit particular offices or the kitchen or his then wife MacKenzie, whose desk was in a small spot in the center of the layout not far from the fax and mail room.
Jorgensen remembered visiting MacKenzie herself, because she said there was a zero missing from her first paycheck, and the Amazon accountant had to fix it.
As a copy editor and content creator, Jorgensen’s job was to interview famous and soon-to-be-famous authors and write book reviews for the website, among other things. She remembered the mess of books everywhere. Books were brought up from the warehouse in SoDo so they could be scanned into images for the site. A “terrifyingly manual process,” as she remembers it.
She was there alongside such people as Susan and Eric Benson, whose Corgi Rufus was the first ever Amazon mascot. The dog, who now has an Amazon building named in his honor in South Lake Union, spawned a dog friendly culture at the company that is easily recognizable today. But Rufus didn’t just lie around — the dog’s paw was allegedly used to press the keyboard for website code releases.
Interviews were conducted in a “scary” stairway along the back of the building, and people worked long into the night and all weekend. At 26 or 27 years old, Jorgensen said she had no clue, really, what Amazon was poised to become, but there was energy in the air as authors came in to do book signings. Venture capitalists visited. Vice President Al Gore was whisked through.
“I spent many, many hours there,” Jorgensen said. “The company has become in part what it is because we all worked our butts off down there. We can’t take all the credit, but a lot of people hustling for many years helped the company succeed. There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears.”
Jorgensen left in 2001, and she laughed and sighed when asked why she quit.
“I was, I think, the second person to have a baby, and my daughter was really colicky,” said Jorgensen, who now works at Microsoft. “I was completely exhausted and I was like, ‘Screw this, I’m gonna be a parent, I can’t do this anymore.’ I don’t own a tropical island because I quit before my stock fully vested. On bad days I would calculate how much it would be worth and that’s a bad thing to do.”
Wacky, intense and exhilarating
Marilyn Dahl heard the laugh. She was hired as a buying manager in 1997 after spending 20 years at University Bookstore and then some time at a book wholesaler called Pacific Pipeline.
“I remember walking in for my interview and it was in this weirdly empty room and all the carpets were dirty and kind of stained and I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t know about this,'” Dahl said. “And down the hallway I could hear Jeff laughing. That was my first introduction to him.”
Dahl’s first office in the Columbia Building was in a tiny room on a mezzanine above the pool table of the Art Bar, an establishment downstairs. She could hear people playing pool while she worked. On her second or third day she looked into the alley out back between Pike and Pine Streets and there were two guys shooting up.
“I thought, ‘I’m downtown now, baby!’ ” Dahl said. “It was a crazy place.”
So many people were being hired that some remembered the electrical system smoking from the overload. Cigarette smoke also seeped upstairs from the bar down below.
“My office was moved — because so many people were coming in — to the end of a hallway, and I was right next to the Coke machine,” Dahl said. “And there were some people around me, and I remember to get to our desks we had to step across somebody’s dog who was always sleeping there. They just crammed so many people into that building.”
Dahl, who is 73 now, was older at the time than most of those being hired to change the way we shop. Amazon was attracted to her extensive experience and reputation as a book buyer. After being found by a headhunter, she was asked to submit information that included her high school SAT scores.
“And I thought, ‘Oh, did I take an SAT test when I was in high school? I don’t know,'” Dahl said. “So, I looked up SAT and I just made something up that sounded reasonable.”
Dahl, who referred to Amazon’s early years as “wacky” and “intense” and “exhilarating,” recalled a lot of the experimentation that went into trying to figure out how to make the company work, the constant tinkering. One year they would order books from publishers, then they would look at the metrics and switch to ordering from wholesalers. They’d look at the numbers again and switch back to publishers.
“Rather than have people do the buying, they wanted to figure out how to automate it, which it turned out didn’t work,” Dahl said. “I thought, ‘I just don’t want to be here anymore.’ It seemed like it was taking the romance and the fun out of the book business for me.”
She left after six years and joined Shelf Awareness, a Seattle-based publisher that distributes a newsletter about books and the book industry for readers and professionals in the book trade, where she still works today.
“I’ve been with books my entire life,” Dahl said. “To me it was a time of turmoil. I think every day at Amazon in a way is a time of turmoil because, you know, every day is Day 1. And sometimes you just want to work at a place where it’s Day 3.”
The startup culture has remained
Jonathan Leblang started at Amazon in February 1999. He just marked his 20th year with the company, where today he works as director of product management for Amazon Web Services, focused on Alexa for Business. He’s also an admin for the Amazon Old Skool Facebook group where nostalgia for the early years gets passed around.
When Leblang came on board, the company had just launched music (CDs) and video (DVDs/VHS) offerings and he was intrigued by the passion his co-workers had for various forms of media.
“I started just at the front of a large hiring wave, so the facilities team (I think it was really just one person) was doing their best to find places for everyone,” Leblang said of the Columbia Building. “I had a taste of that during my interview — each interviewer took me across the street for coffee because there weren’t any conference rooms available to interview me in. I drank a lot of coffee that day!”
Leblang now works out of an Amazon office in East Palo Alto, Calif., that is a significant upgrade from his original workspace. His desk in 1999 was located in what he called an expanded hallway between lots of different teams. And it was right above the stage located in the club below, and when he worked late on Friday nights — a common occurrence for the startup — it would get really loud as music kicked in.
His new job didn’t just change his professional life. His seating arrangement changed his personal life.
“It was so crowded that there was another desk at a 90-degree angle to mine (corners touching),” Leblang said. “The person at that desk and I had to coordinate getting up from our desks, because our chairs would collide if we both moved back at the same time. It would have been a major inconvenience, except that it made it very easy to get to know that other person — and the person who was at that desk is now my wife. We’ve been married 17 years now.”
Leblang has remained at Amazon all these years in part for the reason that scared others off — the ability to work on a wide variety of products, not just books. Embracing failure, trying new things, focusing on the customer — Leblang can tick off all the key phrases. He’s seen Amazon in startup mode, and he’s remained to see the company as tech giant.
“I always knew we would grow, but I never imagined where we’d be today,” Leblang said. “But I really think that the startup culture has remained. Each of the projects that I’ve worked on has been like its own little startup, where we are just as engaged and customer-obsessed as we were 20 years ago.”
‘Hello, Amazon.com … ‘
As a customer-obsessed company, Amazon has always placed an importance on being reachable. The 1997 seating charts show a cluster of 10 desks on the second floor of the Columbia Building where a team of customer service reps sat. Today, Amazon has more than 75 service locations around the world providing support via phone, email and chat 24 hours a day.
Brad Lambert blazed the trail. He was fed up with a gig at Pike Place Market in 1996 when he visited a temp agency in Seattle. He said he just wanted an indoor job and the woman said a new company named Amazon.com was looking for a receptionist.
“I got an indoor job sitting down at a desk answering phones. It was just what I wanted at the time,” said Lambert, who was employee No. 57. “I basically moved with the company as we grew and I took the reception job to about 750 employees. And I knew everybody’s name and extension. You could walk in the front door and I was always very friendly and I thought I did an excellent job, frankly.”
Speaking by phone from his home near Hood Canal, Wash., where he now works as a project manager for an HR payroll company based out of Florida, Lambert showed off the voice which greeted callers in those early days.
“I used to love doing my voice,” he said. “I had this voice, and every time the phone would ring it would be, um, ‘Hello, Amazon.com … Hello, Amazon.com.’ You know, that was just the standard. And then I would direct the phone call to the right person. And then I would do all the voicemails in the company. So at night if you called in you’d get me saying, ‘You’ve reached Amazon.com outside of our regular reception hours,’ you know, things like that. And everybody used to laugh about my voice because it was real smooth and calming.”
Lambert said he always wanted to be a voice guy on TV commercials but he never followed up on it. Instead he transitioned to an Amazon role in international quality assurance, which entailed testing the website and making sure it was ready to roll out every day. He stayed with the company for eight years, leaving in 2003.
Lambert’s early tasks at the company, other than answering the phones, are difficult to picture given the immense size of the operation today. He made the first “blue badges” for employees — a ubiquitous tech-employee identifier in downtown Seattle today — when they were just paper. He would run out to buy gigantic bags of styrofoam packing peanuts to be used in book shipments.
“I used to walk through Amazon and [mimicking Darth Vader’s Imperial March music] say, ‘One day we’re going to be huge!’ and everybody would laugh,” Lambert said. “And I would say, ‘Someday we’re going to have our own airplane!’ and everybody laughed. It was always kind of half tongue-in-cheek, but you just saw it going on and it was like, ‘This place is just going to explode.’ It was the right thing at the right time. That’s all it was. And the right leader, I mean, Jeff is a brilliant guy.”
Lambert said he was pals with MacKenzie Bezos, and that he had a beer with Jeff once in the Art Bar on Second Avenue. He said he doesn’t know how to reach either of them anymore. And while he’s not a multi-billionaire himself, Lambert’s Amazon stock did help him realize his dream 15 years ago of building a house on Hood Canal property that was in his family.
“I think there’s a lot of people with $10 million trucks,” he joked. “They spent $20,000 in stock and if they’d held it for 20 years, it would be $20 million,” Lambert said.
Seattle has certainly changed a great deal in the years since Lambert moved to what he called “the middle of nowhere.”
The Everything Store, which once needed a guy to answer phones and pick up packing peanuts, is now a $900 billion-dollar company headed by the richest person on the planet. Office workers now toil in glass Spheres full of exotic plants at the base of gleaming towers, one of which is named Day 1. Workers used to dash to the “scary teriyaki” joint across the street from the Columbia Building. Now they grab food at cashierless Amazon Go locations or in trendy restaurants all over town that were spawned in part by their employer’s rapid rise.
A new condo tower will also rise in the heart of the city. And while it replaces a bit of tech history along the way, the new building will stand mainly because of what Amazon has already built.
“To see it now is unbelievable. It’s just astounding to me,” Lambert said. “I think it’s astounding to anybody who was there at the time. … We sold books. And all I wanted was a job to get in out of the rain.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story contained office seating charts from 1997. They have since been removed.