Bill Wolfe’s most fabled sale at the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair didn’t even involve his own stock. He agreed to watch over a booth for an hour and a man walked in, wanting details on a rare two-volume set of a history of Louis and Clark expeditions. Explaining he wasn’t the dealer, the two perused the book together before the man left. Later that day, Wolfe returned to find the dealers writing up an invoice for nearly $100,000.
Over 90 exhibitors will flock to Seattle Center October 13 and 14 for the annual fair, toting paperbacks, medieval illuminated manuscripts, which are handwritten and illustrated, and prints that have been gathered through a network of collectors and sellers across the globe. Doug Stewart, a seller from Australia, will bring a first edition eighteenth-century collection of explorer La Perouse’s maps (only $35,000).
Wolfe, the fair’s current producer, got his start selling in 2012 when he joined forces with the late Seattle book trade icon, Louis Collins.
“I have an enormous amount of energy around books. Whether I’m lugging them around or talking about them or buying or selling, I feed off of them,” Wolfe said.
He now runs Collins Books in north Seattle, which holds four decades’ worth of Louis Collins’ collected texts. Bill and his family live next door to the appointment-only shop. While Collins tracked down most of the books, Bill receives countless others from private collections and retired professors. He’s culled so many that the texts, 20 percent of which are unavailable online, are stacked in the bathroom and kitchen, awaiting the right buyer.
“We are willing to sit on things for decades before they sell,” Wolfe said.
Ed Nudelman, owner of Nudelman Rare Books, started collecting at age 21. He’s been exhibiting at the fair since its inception in the late 1970s. Back then, he hunted nineteenth-century illustrated children’s books featuring illustrations by Jessie Wilcox Smith, famous for her work in stories like Heidi and Mother Goose.
Now, he spends more time selling than collecting. He says the internet has changed the book trade. With everything online, it’s hard to discern what’s collectible, what’s valuable. For Nudelman, value stems not only from scarcity, but from cultural significance—like the Charlotte’s Web in his stock. It’s a 1952, first-edition American classic, certainly significant, even more so since Ed’s copy maintains its original dust jacket. It’s going for $4,500.
While the fair has its five and six-figure sales, you can also find plenty of affordable prints, pulp magazines, and books—some as low as five dollars. Ultimately, the fair is about community and personalized engagement: the hunt for a copy that preserves a bygone era, the art of looking beyond The New York Times Best Sellers list, an actual human person selling you the text.
“If you just concentrate on these big bookstores that sell predominately new stuff and very gently used, really contemporary stuff,” Wolfe says, “you’re missing out on amazing collections and on people to meet.”