The old book business is not the old book business. Opportunities are opportunities because the underlying situation is fundamentally improving or because no predatory alternatives are undermining the current opportunity. In 1991, when Marc Wessel and Michael Lieberman set up shop as used book sellers you could still make the case that the future of the traditional rare book shop was hopeful if not robust. But the 1990’s would prove to be the seminal decade for change in a field that had, for the previous 200 years, measured change in very small increments. The world was changing a bit more rapidly and there was everywhere heightened uncertainty but opening a rare bookshop in Seattle still seemed a safe and settled idea.
True, Seattle neighbor Microsoft was transforming itself into one of the most valuable companies on the planet by moving the world from paper to bits but the Internet, as a used and rare book sales tool was still a few years from launch while the electronic possibilities, still confined to computers connected together looked benign and interesting. Seattle would be at or near ground zero in the breathtaking changes that would restructure bookselling over the next decade but in the early 1990’s, it wouldn’t be immediately apparent that new selling methods would eventually overwhelm almost all American bookshops.
So, starting a bookshop simply seemed the natural affirmation of a couple of fellows who had come of age in what we now know were the final moments of traditional bookselling and thinking the future was bright. For the book business in fact it was Krakatoa on the 25th of August 1883. The damage to those shops has since been incremental and ruthless but only slowly so. A bad year could be followed by a good year but the good years would not recast the continuing cadence of decline. The world would turn away from bookshops but Mark Wessel says and AE data supports him, the world has not turned its back on collectible books. Huge and highly visible online inventories have simply provided more efficient collecting and purchasing as buyers have learned to prefer computer searches of inventories of millions of books to personal visits to see 10,000 or 20,000 examples.
For a time the romance and tactile experience of visiting bookshops seemed to give booksellers some immunity but it would turn out that the two principal communities of buyers would respond very differently to the changes in their retail options.
Experienced book buyers, long used to the ambiance and camaraderie of bookshops grew up with the personal experience they have long provided, sometimes appreciating the experience as much as the books themselves. But more recent generations did not acquire the bookshop experience in such a personal way and increasingly they have opted to buy what they wanted online, often on the basis of price. For the bookshop this has meant a slow decline and an aging and smaller clientele as younger prospects drifted away. For Wessel and Lieberman it turned out that the rare book business, like so much in life, is about timing.
For Mark, now the single principal in the company, the prospect of personal freedom now trumps the continuing contretemps of maintaining the business.
He has been busy but recently answered some questions I emailed him. Here are my questions and his replies.
What prompts the closing? Is it a decline in the efficiency of open retail? Are there other factors?
The predominant reason for closing is that, selfishly, my time is over. I honestly believe that bookstores still can, and in fact do thrive - especially those able to offer non-new books in an interesting environment. However a bookstore - like any small business -- requires the right combination of will, vision and luck/ good fortune. We've been granted more than our share of the third; I still have a bit of the second, I think- but not nearly enough of the first to see it through.
Do you own the property and if so, do you plan to sell or lease it or use it for another purpose?
We do not own our space; unfortunately never have been in that position. We have a tentative agreement to sublease and then turn over our lease to a tenant in the "front half" of the footprint that our space occupies - and they will 'expand' and take over our space - much as we did in 2006 w/ a previous tenant
You are relatively young to be cashing out. Is there another career ahead or simply a recasting of your career as a bookseller?
I appreciate both of those thoughts "young" (if relative) & "cashing out" (if only...). Seriously though, I honestly have no idea what lies ahead. Even after the doors close to the public for good (Sept 6) there will be a couple of month’s worth of tying up a variety of loose ends. As for bookselling, I think my bookselling days will be put behind me; but I would not rule out a future involvement with books (in different environment.)
There are two names in the company name. Are you currently working together? Please remind me of the history of the partnership.
The bookshop was faced with an expiring lease in our current location ~ 2 years ago. . At that time Michael Lieberman & I explored a number of options for moving forward. What we eventually settled on was my assuming sole ownership of the business over time while he pursued his work with the blog he successful runs (bookpatrol.net) along with some other consulting in the book business. We started the business together almost 23 years ago and I've never had the desire to change the name, regardless of the ownership situation. We remain good friends.
If doing it over again [opening the shop] what would you do differently and what would you double down on?
That's a difficult question because I rarely (if ever) think in those terms or entertain those scenarios (for better & worse). What I have often said to people is that we were fortunate to begin in the book business when we did (the store opened in 1992) because I would never have tried if it were later. I had worked in books since 1989 - before the Internet was even remotely thought of or apprehended as a potential reality (much less its applications). I don't know if I would have started a bookshop had our timing been different, say even 5 years later (late 1990s). Interestingly (perhaps) it is only just recently that I've thought the idea of having a bookshop might again have legs. But that brings us back to the will + vision + luck equation.... And essentially it’s a non-starter at this point, for me.
6. You are selling the entire inventory? How have you been doing it?
Yes, we are selling it all (including reference books) - or, at least, attempting to - and have only been doing so at discounted prices for the last month+. The final part of our sale begins Saturday Aug 23 and will continue until Sept 6; everything in the shop & online will be 70% off. After the doors close there will still be work to do (and some books to dispose of) but I will cross that bridge next month.
So the bookshop will close and the final day is September 6th. Old friends and customers will want to stop by. New customers are of course just as welcome but the experience will be brief. To quote Groucho Marks “hello I must be going.” Bookshops have always been the temples where the gospels of literacy, curiosity and interpretation have been taught. To lose even one is a profound loss but it has been a game fight.
Store location and hours
Wessel and Lieberman Booksellers
209 Occidental Avenue South
Seattle, Washington 98104
Everyday through the 6th:
11:00 am to 5:00 pm
Their website: www.wlbooks.com