One of Seattle’s most beloved book dealers, Louis Collins, longtime proprietor of Louis Collins Books and producer of the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair, died of a heart attack on Jan. 2 at the age of 77.
Antiquarian booksellers spend their careers searching for treasure, sifting through endless musty volumes in the hopes of finding that rare first edition, that once-beloved children’s book, that academic tome on some rare specialty, or just that book you didn’t know you were looking for because you didn’t know it existed — until now.
Such was the life of one of Seattle’s most beloved book dealers, Louis Collins, who died of a heart attack on Jan. 2 at the age of 77. The longtime proprietor of Louis Collins Books on Capitol Hill (relocated to North Seattle in 2016) and producer of the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair, Mr. Collins undeniably adored books, but he also loved the hunt.
One volume forever eluded him, said his friend and business partner Bill Wolfe: “Tamerlane and Other Poems,” an extremely rare pamphlet of verse by Edgar Allan Poe, published anonymously in 1827. “He would always remind me, as we were scouting collections in estate sales or at Goodwill or rifling through collections,” said Wolfe earlier this month. “That seemed to be his holy grail. Something other people wouldn’t notice, but near priceless.”
He never found “Tamerlane,” but thousands of other books passed from his hands into those of eager readers. Mr. Collins opened his Seattle shop in 1984, arriving here after spending two decades in San Francisco’s book community. Open “by chance and by appointment,” it was both his business and his home, with books crowded in every room.
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The house was “basically insulated with books,” said his friend Sibyl James. It might have looked like chaos, but friends and colleagues said he had an uncanny ability to know exactly where every book was — not just in his shop, but elsewhere.
Nowadays, the internet makes it easy to look up a book, but not so long ago, those wanting a particular volume would need to notify a dealer like Mr. Collins, who established his own business in 1969. Armed with want lists from customers, he traveled frequently, visiting bookstores, estate sales, fairs and the like; filling orders and remembering what he’d seen where. “He was several steps ahead of people most of the time,” said his friend and colleague Ed Smith, proprietor of Ed Smith Books on Bainbridge Island. “He knew all the books in his head — as soon as he knew somebody wanted something, he’d buy it.”
Mr. Collins grew up in Baltimore and was drawn early on to the secondhand-books business. In a 2012 video interview with Seattle books dealer Taylor Bowie, conducted for the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA), he remembered the first time he visited a secondhand-book store, on Baltimore’s Howard Street, at the age of 18:
“I saw this guy in a tweed jacket with leather patches, a beard, smoking a pipe and playing chess with some crony, and every once in a while selling a book from those stacks. I knew then exactly what I wanted to do. I loved old books, and I’ve been addicted ever since. Smoking a pipe, playing chess — yeah! Except I hate pipes and I never learned how to play chess.”
Making his way to the Bay Area after a brief stay in New York, Mr. Collins officially became a bookseller in the mid-1960s, when he bought a copy of Philip Lamantia’s “Erotic Poems” in Berkeley for a dollar and sold it for $60. He soon was simultaneously juggling a job at Discovery Books in North Beach and his own business; traveling up and down the coast to find books for customers. In the ABAA interview, he remembered visiting Seattle in the early 1970s, making stops at secondhand dealers like Shorey’s Books and David Ishii’s shop.
Settling here in 1984, Mr. Collins quickly became a fixture of the books community, getting involved with the Book Club of Washington (serving at one point as its president) and the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair. He transformed the latter from an every-other-year event into a highly anticipated annual fair. “As far as regional fairs go, I think this is definitely one of the biggest, one of the most successful,” said Wolfe, who joined Mr. Collins as producer of the fair in 2012. The current fair, he said, attracts roughly 2,000 to 2,500 patrons and usually sells out, attracting dealers both national and international.
Mr. Collins’ career was dealt a potentially mortal blow in the late 1990s: The internet arrived and changed the way used books were sold. “Everything I had done for 35 years was wiped out — book search, finding books for people, traveling. My value-added disappeared immediately,” Mr. Collins said in the ABAA interview.
But he found a silver lining: a vast increase in the number of customers wanting secondhand books. “The amount of used books being sold in this world now is huge,” he said then, “compared to the inefficient [system of] finding a book on the Oregon coast that somebody in New York wanted. It’s a totally efficient business, fantastic and huge new money. A gold rush.” Though Mr. Collins said he hated the computer work involved with online selling — “it’s the most boring new change in the world” — he adapted his business practices to suit the times, and kept on bringing books to customers.
Those who knew Mr. Collins speak of his kindness and generosity, his knack for storytelling, his wide-ranging friendships, his remarkable organizational skills, his even temperament (“I never saw him get rattled about anything, ever,” said Bowie), his business savvy. “Even on his last day, he was a man who took care of business,” said Smith. “He’d just finished his 2017 taxes, and he took the dog for a walk.”
Outside of his work, Mr. Collins had eclectic interests: He loved jazz, cooking, movies and travel (every year following the Book Fair in October, he’d take a few weeks off to visit some dreamed-of locale). And he enjoyed meals shared with the family he created for himself in Seattle, which included Wolfe, his wife Ix-Chel and their children Amelie and Emmett; James; and longtime friend Patricia Barry. (Mr. Collins’ survivors also include an adult son, Brian, in California, and a sister in New Jersey.) A constant reader — “a book a day, sometimes two,” said Barry — he kept them all well supplied with thoughtfully chosen books.
“Whenever he would come across something that he thought would appeal to a particular friend, he would show up with it,” said James. When she rented an apartment in Paris for a trip last fall, Mr. Collins (who loved mystery novels) gave her Cara Black’s “Murder in Montmartre” — set in the neighborhood where she would be staying.
Respecting Mr. Collins’ wish, there will be no funeral service, but Wolfe said a party is being planned at the shop, sometime in the summer, to celebrate his life. Meanwhile, Louis Collins Books will live on: Wolfe, who joined Mr. Collins in the business five years ago, will continue the tradition. Perhaps he’ll find “Tamerlane” in a dusty pile, some day.