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Originally published Monday, September 28, 2009 at 12:02 AM

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Lit Life

The rare-book trade is alive and well at Wessel & Lieberman

Lit Life columnist Mary Ann Gwinn reports on the Pioneer Square gem Wessel & Lieberman, purveyors of used and rare books, in anticipation of the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair and Book Arts Show Oct. 10-11 at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall.

Seattle Times book editor

If you love old things and you love books, pass through the door of Wessel & Lieberman in Pioneer Square and you may find yourself strangely reluctant to leave.

It's cool. It's quiet. Old books line the shelves. In the display cases are exquisite examples of books as fine art — beautifully printed, miniature books — that beg to be picked up and examined at your leisure (remember leisure?).

Wessel & Lieberman, 208 First Avenue South, is one of the city's better known purveyors of used and rare books, as well as new limited edition books, posters and prints. Partners Michael Lieberman and Mark Wessel will be among the exhibitors at next month's Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair and Book Arts Show (Oct. 10-11 at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall; go to or call 206-323-3999). They have been in the business together for a couple of decades, and they have seen a lot of changes.

Though the rare and collectible book trade might seem like a ruminative, 19th-century kind of occupation, Lieberman persuaded me otherwise when he gave me a quick tutorial on this niche world of bookselling.

"The antiquarian trade was stagnant for hundreds of years," Lieberman said. "With the advent of online bookselling, anyone anywhere has the opportunity to sell something, regardless of skill level. It's the Wild West."

If you think you have a valuable book, you probably have googled it to see what it's worth, and a "too much information!" moment has followed. What's the difference between "fine" and "near fine" condition? Why does one seller want $30, and another $300? What's the difference between a first edition and a limited edition?

Lieberman says one guide to getting a realistic appraisal is to deal with bookseller who's a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association ( — prospective members are screened by other members, and must agree to abide by a code of ethics.

Often, a W&L customer has lost a loved one, and though they may have loved the deceased, they don't love the books. "They just know they're there [the books], and they just want to get rid of them," says Lieberman. Though many old books are worth very little, there's always the exception. Lieberman says the store is currently sorting through the library of a retired University of Washington professor, and it's a treasure trove of Northwest history — "In every box we're opening, there's something unbelievably cool."

The store also carries new books with a very local focus, as well as books issued in editions too limited for other bookstores to carry them."Rock& Roll: Jini Dellaccio" is a collection of photographs of a now 92-year-old photographer who shot many rock icons, including Northwest bands the Wailers and the Sonics. There's a book on immersion baptism. There's a book by an artist who slips human hair into her productions.

Drop by, or take a virtual tour at, and visit Lieberman's blog at And check out the antiquarian bookfair; you'll find treasures that will never show up on the Costco table.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@

Mary Ann Gwinn appears on Classical KING-FM's Arts Channel at


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