Pelican Bay Books' Mariah Barrett on the Daily Life of a Bookseller

Mariah Barrett

Mariah Barrett

Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Mariah Barrett, manager of Pelican Bay Books in Anacortes, Washington:

How did you get started in rare books?

I came upon rare and collectible books by way of circumstance more than anything else. Pelican Bay Books has been a branch of my family for nearly two-thirds of my life. When I first started loitering at the bookstore as a teenager, the shop was on a block with an art gallery, a French bakery, a juice bar, a shop that sold wacky gifts, a bar, and a couple other shops. Back then only summers and school breaks were spent in Anacortes and I didn’t have much else to do besides visiting with a handful of adults our father knew. I never paid much mind to the books behind the counter or those within the glass case. A couple years later, I found myself doing odd jobs, and still loitering at the bookstore. The owner, Kevin, hired me to watch the front counter, pencil price mass markets, and clean and Brodart incoming inventory. I was exposed to more books than I had interest in. A few years later I moved away to pursue a different kind of education and to travel. 

In January 2013, following 18 months of working for Kevin, my brother and his wife bought the store. About that time I had moved back to town with a young family, the shop needed someone who knew just a bit and by the end of that year I needed a part-time job. A decade later I am still at the store with more curiosity and drive than ever before. 

Pelican Bay Books and Coffeehouse, started in 1994 as Pelican Bay Used Books, is a multi-interest brick-and-mortar used bookstore with a focus on Pacific Northwest History, general literary fiction, science, esoterica, philosophy, and art. We buy and sell about 50,000 books annually. Though tourists visit and shop, it is our own community of readers that supports us throughout the year.

What is your role at Pelican Bay Books?

I am the books manager. My workweek is fabulously regular. Unless otherwise needed, I am at the shop Monday through Friday. I schedule most appointments, buy and sell books, respond to inquiries, ship with online orders, provide a listening ear, hold babies, and tell corny jokes. I also like to keep the pencils sharpened. Wednesday through Saturday our buying counter is open and on days I am there I spend a lot of time sorting, researching, buying and cataloging.  

What do you love about the book trade?

As booksellers we are learners, educators, hosts to knowledge and beauty, and have the opportunity to be beacons of inspiration. I had the good fortune of attending CABS in 2022. I knew I was thirsty, but had no idea how desperate I was to be a better bookseller until that week. My longstanding intimidation of rare and collectible books was erased. The camaraderie and support within the CABS community gifted and lifted a passion for the book trade I had known previously to only exist among old white men. I love that there is growing room in the trade for a more diverse population of booksellers, librarians and archivists. 

Favorite rare book (or ephemera) that you’ve handled?

Not so long ago I was having a conversation about math with a customer. He mentioned Oliver Byrne’s The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid, Pickering, 1847. I was enthralled. Eight months later I visited one of 1000 first editions at the University of Washington Special Collections Library. I think about that book regularly and am continually digging at the rabbit hole in search of its why and how. It has inspired me to learn more about the ins and outs of hand-press printing.

What do you personally collect?

Glancing at my own shelves I see foreign language dictionaries, children’s picture books that make me laugh and have clever illustrations, reference books of plants and food, P. G. Wodehouse, folk song collections, books about books, and the ever popular bibliographies of bibliographies. There are a few Edward Gorey signed firsts along with my shelf-hog 20 volume second edition of the OED

What do you like to do outside of work?

My greatest and most important role is that of mother to a child on the brink of 11. He loves, he challenges and he thinks deeply on all subjects. 

Outside of work and parenthood I play a lot of whole notes on a sweet red accordion in a band with my friends The Enthusiasts.  We play “feet-stomping, homemade and heart-full rock and roll” all over Skagit Valley. We practice weekly,  our summers are always booked in addition to the handful of shows we play in the off season. There’s a lot growing in my garden that needs attention too. I keep busy.

Thoughts on the present state and/or future of the rare book trade?

The luddite-leaning among us, myself included, have learned and are learning to embrace modern electronic communication methods. Threads of queries for assistance are replete with generosity and goodwill. By holding ourselves to standards of honesty, integrity and perpetual learning, along with the will to teach and mentor the curious among us, I have faith that the rare book trade will continue to grow, diversify and inspire. 

Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?

My brother and I will again have a booth at The Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair in late October. We have yet to issue any catalogs.