Giving a Seattleite a book as a gift is like giving an Eskimo snowshoes: The fear is not that this is something she will never use, but something she already has and has been given many times before. "Oh! Rebecca Wells' latest! You really shouldn't have." However, this problem can be solved by eschewing that New York Times bestseller display and making a beeline for your local rare-book store.
When most of us think of rare books, we think of things like the Gutenberg Bible, something ancient and wondrous and "priceless," locked away in a glass case. Not so. "Rare books don't have to be expensive, or necessarily old," reassures Phillip Bevis, owner of Arundel Books. "You didn't have to sell your dot-com stock last year to be able to afford them." As examples, Bevis offers a copy of Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers from 1900 ($12), an original stone lithograph political cartoon from 1883 that commemorates the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge ($65), and a 1927 loose-leaf book charting the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway from Lake Michigan to Puget Sound ($65). "These are not things you see commonly nowadays," he says. "They're the kind of things that people have never held in their hand." Aiming to lure the reader as well as the collector, Bevis literally mixes the old and the new, with the latest editions of Modern Library classics shelved next to rarer, plastic-covered finds. "I don't want people to feel intimidated," Bevis says. "I like having a store where people don't feel their hands don't belong in the books."
Many rare-book stores cater to people who already know what they want—a first or signed edition of a book, or a replacement for a well-worn favorite now out of print. Yet they also have plenty to offer people hoping to walk in, peer through the stacks, and find inspiration. At Seattle Book Center, customers settle down in old, comfy chairs to see what the mix-and-match bookshelves hold. For fans of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, there's a first edition of his 1984 interpretation of The Nutcracker ($30). For readers of James Joyce, Homer, or Thomas Hardy, there are cloth-bound 1920s Modern Library editions ($15-$25). For getting back to the future, there's a 1939 Life magazine entitled "America's Future," complete with a full spread on the Pacific Northwest frontier, " a vision and a promised land" ($12.50).
If you know some fantasy buffs, you might pop next door, to the smaller, well-packed B. Brown and Associates, a specialist in things sci-fi, fantasy, and mystery, as well as old and out-of-print children's books. Here, you could find a signed, first printed edition of Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum ($65), first editions of Tom Swift novels ($15-$35), and a 1940 book club edition of Dr. Seuss' Horton Hatches the Egg ($15).
If Seattle history or politics is more your gift recipient's thing, it's also one of Wessel and Lieberman Booksellers' specialties. Here you could pick up a leather- or cloth-bound 1929 Washington State Legislative Manual ($15 for the leather ones, which were bound for state representatives and senators; $10 for the cloth). Or how about the comprehensively named A Volume of Memoirs and Genealogy of Representative Citizens of the City of Seattle and the County of King, Completed with Portrait Engravings (1903, $100)? There's also a quality smattering of literature and poetry, including Oscar Wilde's The Soul of Man Under Socialism with the 1937 inscription from the then-gift-giver, "Think you will find this stirring, powerful and true (in part)" ($30).
Indeed, a rare book doesn't have to be valuable on the open market to mean something special to the recipient. As Brenda Fillipi of the 65-year-old Fillipi Books and Record Shop remarks, "We like to say every book has a first edition." What you'll find in Fillipi's shop is as quirky and oddball as the layout of the nook-and-cranny store itself, from Bill Speidel's self-proclaimed first Seattle restaurant guide, You Can't Eat Mountain Rainier! (1955, $7.50-$10) to a first edition of R. E. Wells and Victor C. West's self-published A Guide to Shipwreck Sites Along the Oregon Coast via US 101 (1984, $6). Fillipi also has one of the best offerings of old 78 records and other non-rock LPs, including that 1983 country- music classic by everyone's favorite "singing superintendent" of Seattle Public Schools, Dr. Don Steele, "Let's All Pull Together"—a scheme to raise money for the Seattle Schools Scholarship Fund ($8.50).
Those who buy rare books simply for their monetary value run the risk of suffering from an extreme form of bibliomania—as Wessel and Lieberman's copy of I. D'Israeli's 1834 Curiosities of Literature ($125) describes it, the "collecting of an enormous heap of books without intelligent curiosity." Whatever book you choose, it doesn't have to go in a glass case—the key is to find something for your gift-getter to read, thumb through, and enjoy firsthand.
Molly Rhodes is a freelance writer and contributor to Seattle Weekly.
1113 First, 624-4442
B. Brown and Associates
3534 Stone N, 634-1481
Fillipi Books and Record Shop
1351 E Olive, 682-4266
Seattle Book Center
3530 Stone Wy N, 547-7870
Wessel and Lieberman Booksellers
208 First S, 682-3545