We spoke recently with Michael Lieberman, co-founder of the venerable Wessel & Lieberman bookstore in Seattle. He discussed how to thrive as an independent bookseller in a shrinking economy moving heavily towards on-line sales. Wessel & Lieberman Booksellers was founded in 1992. After a spending a year in the Eastlake neighborhood of Seattle, the shop moved Pioneer Square where it has been ever since.
What in your development as a thinker and entrepreneur led you to the book world?
One thing that has always fascinated me about bookselling is that the learning curve is always vertical. Sure, after doing this for 16 years, I have attained some level of expertise and deep experience, but you can never know it all. It is a humbling occupation that presents new opportunities for knowledge on a daily basis. So much of our culture emanates from the printed word; I feel very fortunate to be have been able to spend a good part of my life surrounded by books.
How would you describe your role as a bookseller?
Technology has changed things quite a bit in the book universe in recent years. There are now more ways to buy books and more ways to read their content, but less places to be with books. This shift adds a whole new dimension to the role of the bookshop and the bookseller. These days, I am as much of a book cheerleader as I am a bookseller.
W+L sells new, used, and rare books, many with a nod to visual arts and photography. You also specialize in hand-made and letterpress books. Why did you decide on this focus?
When Mark and I started this journey, we consciously chose to be open to the whole book spectrum—taking a more holistic approach to bookselling. While being able to handle the antiquarian and collectible material, we also wanted to provide a space for the vibrant book arts community of the Northwest. We also wanted to carry select new books in our fields of interest.
Just playing devil’s advocate, why choose an independent like W+L when you could just go on-line, pay less, and not leave home?
Let’s just say we cater to the tactile crowd. Using a keyboard to find a book is a very different experience than holding one in your hand. Much of the serendipity that is inherent in visiting a bookshop is lost online.
Any advice for struggling independent booksellers?
Yes, become more interdependent and broaden your world to include other elements of the book universe. It has become very difficult, almost impossible, to just sell new books or to just sell used books. This is a dying model. I wrote a two-part piece titled The Bookseller Manifesto for Book Patrol that tackles this challenge.
Here is an excerpt from Bookselling 2.0: The Bookseller Manifesto. Part II:
Our first order of business is to accept the fact that independent bookselling as we know it is on its deathbed. Period. The model has been severely disturbed by the changes of the last 10 years and will no longer work.
There is no need to read on until this step is understood.
We need to let go of the term “independent” once and for all. To remain independent in the new landscape will almost certainly guarantee failure. Yes, the trade is swarming with independent, unique individuals that add so much flavor to the trade but most healthy organisms must exhibit some dependent behavior or they do not survive. It should be no different for booksellers. We need to create bookshops that are unique in their complexity.
Is there something about having W+L based in Seattle that makes it successful?
That’s an interesting question. Seattle’s a great city and one that is extremely well positioned for the 21st century. While much of our customer base is located outside of Seattle, we are very much of Seattle and the region. We pay special attention to the history, literature, and book artists of our region, and do what we can to support and promote that material to the world.
Here is a great example—the city of Tacoma recently undertook a project, See Hear: Hear/Say, pairing Tacoma poets with local printers to create a suite of broadsides that would appear on the buses. In addition to the reproductions that will appear on the buses, they produced 40 sets of the original broadsides printed on letterpress. We supported the project by purchasing a fair number of the sets and now we can promote this marvelous collaboration to a larger audience.
I’ve heard the argument that as chains get bigger and compete with each other, a space for independents is being carved out. Do you agree?
No, if anything, independent booksellers are being carved up! Yes, there is room for everyone but unfortunately, the chain epidemic has changed the playing field and has put tremendous pressure on independent bookstores. The mantra for the corporate bookseller is “growth, growth, growth,” while the independent bookseller’s has become “survive, survive, survive.”
Corporate bookselling can never serve the needs of a community the way an independent, locally owned bookstore could. Conversely, independent bookstores can never compete with the chains in terms of price point and resources. I’ll let you decide which is healthier for a community.
Instead of offering huge discounts on books like Amazon.com and other large chains, it seems that independents are opting to provide the a higher level of service and quality in order to thrive. Have W+L’s priorities changed or modified as chain stores have grown? Or have certain core values been a part of your business from the beginning?
I can’t say that our priorities have changed. The book business has certainly evolved, and in the last 10 years or so we have seen seismic changes to the bookselling landscape.
Our focus has always been on building relationships and fairness. Relationships with our customers, the community, and our colleagues, and fairness in our pricing and in what we offer for material. Books are not just commodities here at W&L; they are given the proper respect and care that they deserve.
Michael Lieberman was born and raised in New York and emigrated to Seattle in 1991. He co-founded Wessel & Lieberman Booksellers in 1992. Lieberman has served on the Board of the Friends of the Seattle Public Library, the Book Club of Washington, and the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA). He is also the creator of the syndicated blog Book Patrol: A Haven for Book Culture, and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.