Louis Collins owned one of Seattle’s best known and longest running antiquarian bookshops. He was also highly regarded as the presenter of the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair, one of the larger regional fairs. When Collins died unexpectedly in 2018 his friend and colleague Bill Wolfe, 46, took over both the book business and the fair with an eye toward carrying on the Collins tradition.
Collins Books was founded in 1969 in the San Francisco Bay area, but had moved to Seattle by the early 1980s, where it was well known for the warm and gregarious personality of its founder and a wide range of books, especially in anthropology and Native Americana.
“I met Louis in 2005 or thereabouts and we became fast friends,” Wolfe recalled. “We were were friends for a number of years and then became partners in the Book Fair in 2012, and I also joined Collins Books to work with Louis later that same year.”
Wolfe said he and his family met Collins through Seattle glass artist and restaurant owner Patricia Barry. They participated in many of her gatherings and as their friendship grew he came to think of the older man “as a sort of surrogate parent.” It was through Barry that Wolfe first learned that Collins was looking for someone to work with and eventually take over the store.
Wolfe, who had been making his living as a professional poker player, was quick to take him up on the offer. The pair combined forces both professionally and personally by buying real estate in NE Seattle with two houses on the property. The location was large enough to accommodate the bookstore, Wolfe, his wife and two children and also his wife’s childcare business.
“We bought the property together,” Wolfe said,“but I inherited the inventory and business. I knew it was coming, we only got it all in writing three months before he died. When it happened I thought, ‘Here we go.’ I felt a huge responsibility and I still do.”
Asked how he handled the transition to owner, he replied, “Emotionally it was very rough, because I took the business over with no warning when Louis passed away on January 2nd, 2018. I’d worked with him that very day. The business aspect of taking over was easy. My educational background is in business, and I'd worked in bookstores before. I also ran Collins Books on and off through the years when Louis traveled, which was often, so this was the easy part. The hard part was all the emotional stuff, having to exist in his environment with all the reminders that he was no longer there.”
Wolfe expanded the company’s areas of focus somewhat: “We specialize in scarce, rare and scholarly books in all fields with an emphasis on history, art and anthropology of the indigenous world. But we are also interested in general used and rare books including science fiction and fantasy. If it's made of paper, we're ready to see it”.
Presently Collins Books consists of one shop and three warehouses. The firm has an estimated 35,000 books online. “I've tripled the inventory since Louis passed away,” Wolfe said. “We struggle to keep up with acquisitions, which absolutely poured in. We've participated in the liquidation and downsizing of many prominent Seattle area shops in the last five years.”
”Our stock is mostly online,” he continued, “but we’re seeing more customers come in person. We’re a bit out of the way so you have to be a destination shopper. Hours are Monday through Friday from 10-5 (and other times by appointment).”
Wolfe praised Collins' long involvement in the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair. He noted that the fair had had multiple presenters. “Louis came aboard in the 1990s, and made it a great operation.” Though previously it was every other year, it’s now an annual event held on the second full weekend in October. This year’s dates are October 14th &15th. “We have dealers participating from all over the country, as well as a few from Canada, and Europe. In 2019 we had 109 exhibitors. That was a record, then COVID killed us for 2020 and 2021.
“We ramped it back up again in October 2022 with 80 exhibitors. It was great to see everyone here in our beloved city again. When we returned last year we had 200 people go through the doors in the first ten minutes and it was the busiest Sunday ever.“
During the extended pandemic, Wolfe said, Collins Books became increasingly involved with the Friends of the Seattle Public Library. “It started when Covid caused them to cancel their big annual sale, and then the cost of the warehouse became too great.”
At the same time he witnessed a lot of “downsizing, selling houses, and people with big collections whose kids were not interested in books. A lot of people have nice collections; they appreciate what the Friends do and they want the Friends to benefit. They want their books to go to a good place.”
Wolfe explained that his shop got involved with helping the Friends liquidate their holdings via his contacts with others in the trade. Then, “a few months later they contacted us again and we ended up agreeing to process their donations. Now (March 2023), they send leads, we make the house calls and receive the books. Some we buy outright, others valued at under $30 we take to their three small retail locations, or distribute to charities. The ones worth over $30 Collins takes in on consignment, catalogs and lists online. The normal split is 50/50 after expenses.
“We deal with those books as they come in. The volume of donations is heavier than it used to be. In just a year and a half I’ve seen about 150,000 books. We select what they can use and advise what can be done with the rest. Before we took over this function the Friends never had more than 300-400 books listed. Right this second it’s just short of 2,000 titles online, worth about $152,000 at retail. We’re all in this for the love of the books.”
Wolfe pointed out the benefit to the Friends is,“If you just have volunteers, they’re going to miss so much. If your mission is to raise funds, you need at least one person in the trade to identify things that are valuable that volunteers would have likely missed.”
From his own point of view, “As a dealer, I'm driven to keep books in circulation. I collect voraciously myself, and I am determined to learn something from everything that I touch and from everyone that I meet. My association with them has helped my learning curve tremendously. I am not nearly done learning, exploring, dreaming, experimenting in the book trade. Really, we’re just getting started!”
“I’m happy with where we are at,” he said. “When I worked for Louis, the business could only support me half time, now we’re certainly supporting ourselves and several employees.” Going forward he hopes to upgrade the physical setting to become more of a “showroom experience.”
“In general, key pieces this year will be going back to ABAA (where he hopes to qualify for membership under his own name) and to upgrade our website. I want to take the shop and the book fair to the next level. I’d like us to be the best in the Seattle area.”
Reflecting on his experience since 2018 he said, “I had a great friend in Louis, who was a father figure to me. It was my good fortune through him to become the owner of two great turnkey businesses. I’m just here to keep them on the tracks. I want Louis to be credited with building them and being such a great person in so many ways.”
Obituary and tribute to Louis Collins, Seattle Times, Jan. 18, 2018
Video of Louis Collins interviewed by fellow Seattle book dealer Taylor Bowie for the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America, (ABAA) 2012
Seattle Book Fair 2023
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Reach Rare Book Hub Monthly writer Susan Halas at firstname.lastname@example.org