There were no Kindles or iPads when Wessel & Lieberman Booksellers first opened its doors at 208 First Ave. S. In fact, Amazon and eBay didn’t exist.
Books, printed on paper, packed the shelves.
“Before the Internet took over and the dynamics of retailing on the Internet became apparent, there was this idea that the more books you have, the better,” said co-owner Mark Wessel.
These days, there are still a lot of used books at the Pioneer Square store and thousands more in a storage unit in West Seattle. Some of them, hardback volumes that once sold for $15 to $45, wouldn’t fetch a buck today.
Fortunately, they don’t have to.
For the next month, the bookstore’s owners are giving away these books — fiction, nonfiction, history, biography — from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday at The Storefront at Olson Kundig Architects, 406 Occidental.
“It didn’t pay anymore for us to pursue to sell them; it didn’t pay for us to keep them,” said co-owner Michael Lieberman. “This was just the most creative way we could find to distribute them.”
The project, called The Free Book Incident, kicks off Jan. 10, with an initial donation of 2,500 books. It’s infused with Lieberman and Wessel’s shared love for printed books and the community.
The shift to electronic books doesn’t worry Lieberman, who spends most of his time on his website, bookpatrol.net, a blog and soon-to-be marketplace dedicated to discussions about physical books.
“The book is much more important to our culture and our way of being that I can’t imagine it disappearing so fast,” he said.
He’s not alone. When the Seattle Public Libraries closed for a week's furlough last August, volunteers set up The Seattle People’s Library outside of the Douglass-Truth Library. In neighborhoods around the city, residents have set up book exchanges and constructed little boxes called Little Free Libraries to share literature.
Through scheduled social events and a unique installation, The Free Book Incident takes sharing and social reading to another level. The bookstore has invited the Seattle Public Library, Wave Books, The Stranger and Springtide Press, among others, to hold readings and discussions at the event.
People working at the storefront will use social media to share what participants find in the stacks. Olson Kundig designed the space to be adjusted to the need.
Six Olson Kundig interns constructed moving bookshelves for the event. The 12-foot-by-8-foot structures will be secured to the floor but pivot depending on what the space requires.
The Free Book Incident is the latest in a series of community displays and events organized by Olson Kundig. In the past year, the firm turned the space into a mushroom farm, a record-listening space and a history display on Skid Road (“Olson Kundig to host ‘Skid Road’ installation.” RC, July 18, 2012).
The Free Book Incident does more than solve the bookstore’s overstock problem. It’s a chance to recreate the sense of discovery that bookstores used to provide.
“A lot of it is about walking into a space and exploring and being open to the serendipity of it,” Wessel said.