Visitors to Wessel & Lieberman Booksellers become part of a story in progress. The Pioneer Square shop weaves the past and present into a singular experience, from the historic brick building to the heirloom bookcases and, most of all, the used books that have traveled time and distance to call the store home.
“A bookstore brings people together in a space where serendipity happens,” says owner Mark Wessel. “You can meet your friends, talk to a stranger or just do your own thing. There are so many opportunities to come across things you never knew existed. That’s the magic of bookstores.”
Wessel & Lieberman is currently celebrating its 20th year. Recently, the store underwent a change of face and address. In 2012, co-founder Michael Lieberman amicably departed to pursue other book-related ventures, and the bookstore itself took a new direction. The shop remains in Pioneer Square’s landmark Grand Central Building, but the space was divided and the shop now occupies the rear portion; majestic, eastward-facing windows look out on Occidental Park instead of First Avenue.
“It’s sort of the best of both worlds because it feels like we moved even though we didn’t really move. It’s definitely a little quieter and more intimate now,” says Wessel. The atmosphere is more relaxed without the clatter of First Avenue’s street traffic and parade of Underground Tours. Outside, the entrance is framed by leafy-green ivy climbing the brick façade. Inside, 1,800 square-feet houses upwards of 10,000 books. New books are scattered throughout, but Wessel & Lieberman specializes in used, limited edition, small press and handmade volumes. It’s the type of shop where the “New Arrivals” section includes a 1925 edition of Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“The way the [independent] bookstore business has evolved, most have their own niche and, more and more, we have ours,” says Wessel. “If somebody needs or has an old, rare, handmade book or something unusual, a lot of times they end up here.”
A treasure can be found on any given day. Wessel has difficulty citing a particular favorite—there are too many worthy of the title. As an example, he picks up a recent acquisition from atop his desk, a 1664, calf-bound, illustrated medical book, the first to coin the term “neurology.”
“It’s an incredibly important book in the history of medicine and science,” says Wessel as he delicately unfolds the enclosed illustrations.
Books are part of life at Wessel & Lieberman, not separate from it. Patrons are free to page through volumes plucked from the antique-style bookcases. Some were custom-built by local artisans. An imposing, cherry-wood case was acquired by trading it for a book. On the mezzanine, customers sometimes sit on the floor and forage through well-organized, wooden crates filled with slim volumes of poetry.
“People have their own relationship with books. Books sell themselves, in a way,” says Wessel. “I suppose there are ways to get people to buy them if you’re Costco or Amazon, ship it for free with 14 things other things. In a bookstore, though, it’s a physical expression that appeals to something you want to do, something you want to be, something you want to learn.”
In recent years, Pioneer Square suffered from well-documented economic woes, but Wessel observes a resurgence in progress. He cites growing accessibility via train, ferry, trolleys and light rail. Also, new small-business blood is moving into the area, such as London Plane, the much buzzed about café-grocery. Wessel is encouraged by the prospects.
Wessel & Lieberman continues doing its part to foster community. In early 2013, the bookstore presented the “Free Book Incident” in partnership with Olson Kundig Architects. Wessel & Lieberman provided overstock to create a temporary, Pioneer Square pop-up bookstore where everyone “shopped” for free. The permanent store even personally delivers books to the doorsteps of downtown customers on a regular basis.
It’s the personal connections and putting books in reader’s hands that drives the store. On a blustery fall day, two women visit Wessel & Lieberman on the recommendation of another, local bookseller. They need the perfect book for a colleague’s retirement gift; a tangible expression of the words they cannot fully express themselves. Wessel goes to work scouring the shelves and acting as a literary matchmaker.
“I think a lot of us hold onto the idea that technology won’t ultimately be enough,” says Wessel. “We’re still human beings and, at some point, we’ll remember that we crave something real whether that’s a vinyl record, a walk in the park, coffee with friends or a book.”
Photo by Teresa McCann Photography.