I opened Old Seattle Paperworks in 1976 on 8th and Pike Streets in downtown Seattle, Washington. A lifelong obsessive compulsive collector, I had previously been eking out a meager living as an antique picker and book scout since leaving home at age 16. Coming of age at the height of the hippy movement left me with an aversion to any sort of legitimate career or education. Haunting junk stores, and used book shops, in search of treasure suited me just fine. It was a time before the internet and antique “maIls”, when shops were owner-operated, and usually reflected the hearts and souls and obsessions of those who conceived them. I befriended dealers, of whom there were many back then (Seattle being the town with more bookshops per capita than any city in the nation). One of these dealers in particular took me under her wing. Nora Ottenberg was shrewd, business savvy, and filled with an encyclopedic knowledge of a vast array of subjects – she was the quintessential antiquarian book dealer. Admiring her experience, and greatly appreciating her razor sharp cynicism and acerbic sense of humor, I was proud to become her sidekick. Ottenberg Books was located at 724 Pike Street sandwiched between The Tokyo Tavern (the sign outside read: “girls to play pool with”) and the infamous Exotica Dance Studios, where women in bikinis danced in full length picture windows facing Pike Street, and fleeced their eager-eyed customers in the back rooms. Nora and I cruised the city in her vintage Citroen DS – 21, filling the trunk and back seat with books and, as she called it, “keen stuff” from estates, junk sales, and auctions. She was one cool lady, and it was an honor to have her as a mentor. When she passed away a few years later all who had known her understood, that there was only one Nora Ottenberg, and her passing left a permanent void in our community of booksellers.
The year before her cancer was diagnosed, Nora had built, to her detailed specifications, her perfect bookshop. It was located across the street from her old location, in the historic terra cotta Mountaineers Building. When the new shop was completed and she was all moved in, a skeleton of empty shelves and anything not deemed worthy of the new shop, was left behind in the old shop. Tired from moving library carts across Pike Street all day, I was floored when my dear friend said something to me that changed my life forever. She announced that it was time for me to grow up, and become a respectable man with a real job. She handed me the keys to her old shop, and a cigar box filled with ones, fives and coins, and said: “you open your shop tomorrow”. I was 22 years old. 724 Pike had been a bookshop under three different proprieters since the 1920s. I became the fourth and the last. It was a big airy space with 20 foot ceilings and a loft in the back. The building was so old that the shop’s bathroom was built in a lean-to like structure off the back of the building. I did open that next day, May 1st, 1976, without a sign or a name, amidst the choas of the remnants of a real shop. I think I made around $14. The next day was better and the day after that better still. I was no longer a scout and a picker – I was a book dealer.
Within two short years I was given notice that the building which housed 724 Pike was going to be torn down. Seattle was at the beginning of her great transition from sleepy, seedy port and one-shop town (Boeing), to the popular world-class travel destination it is today. Real estate was booming, folks were flocking into downtown rather than fleeing away from it. The old town was becoming a real city. Many of those great old buildings and businesses succumbed to this boom, including entire blocks of traditional restaurants, dive bars, go-go clubs, and theatres. Niketown, skyscraper hotels, multiplex theatres, and vertical shopping malls replaced small businesses that had been Seattle’s color and soul for decades. My shop, though only a couple of years old, was ultimately to be displaced by the construction of the Washington State Convention Center. A Hertz Rent-a-Car now stands where I once sold used and rare books. I packed up my hundreds of boxes of books, and the “paperworks” for which I had become known. It was fortunate for me that I knew someone who had a shop for sale in one of the only places in the city that was safe from the urbanization and surgical removal of structures old and beautiful. Architect, and historic preservationist, Victor Steinbrueck (and his followers) had gone to battle with the developers and their city government lackeys, and through a public initiative prevented the destruction of The Pike Place Market. “The Market” as it is affectionately referred to in Seattle, is without doubt a tourist attraction with over ten million visitors per year. But through the diligent work of preservationists, and a doctrine conceived by Steinbrueck and others, The Market remains today — a jewel in the midst of our city. I purchased the business known as “American Eagle” a shop specializing in the sale of military memorabilia. At this time The Market was in the midst of several years of renovations to make it safe and historically accurate, preserving all but the dust and patina. I had to build my own shop, clearing every detail, color, design and “change of use” with the notorious “Historical Commission”.
I re-opened for business again on Mayday, 1978. As my old digs at 8th and Pike was a couple thousand square feet, and my new space a scant 500, I changed the focus of the shop. I would no longer sell used and rare books, but concentrate on the new genre of collectibles known as paper ephemera – or as I had been calling it – “paperworks”. From the word “ephemeral”, literally meaning “lasting but one day”, ephemera has since morphed into a word describing collectible paper items that were originally printed without the intent to save. Items such as postcards, posters, railroad timetables, pin-up calendars, old newspapers and magazines, advertising, and so on. I became Seattle’s first specialist in this popular new field, and my business thrived. I bought and sold, uncovered some real rarities, made good money at times, and one year I had to work swing shift as a Market janitor, just to survive. I developed relationships with dealers and collectors, buying and selling but always focusing on the buying. Through secret sources, and out of remarkable and historic estates, I purchased incredible troves of paper, slowly accumulating the vast collections we have today. At one point I bought Seattle Public Library’s entire collection of out of town newspapers – over twenty TONS of bound volumes dating back to the 1840s. That is what you call a storage nightmare.