BY Eugenia Bell in Opinion | 20 MAR 12
Featured in
Issue 146

Paper Chase

The fall and rise of independent bookshops and publishing

BY Eugenia Bell in Opinion | 20 MAR 12

Van Alen Books, New York 2012. Courtesy Van Alen Books, New York

In the late 1990s, when I was working as an editor for a small architecture publisher in New York City, there were two main bookshops that served editors, architects and planners alike. In the just barely pre-Internet takeover of book shopping (and, more importantly, book browsing) – when Amazon was more novelty than evil overlord – a subterranean shop on Centre Street, just below SoHo, run by a woman named Yukio, and Urban Center Books, in midtown, were at once libraries, sources of competition scouting and collectors’ paradises for those seeking obscure Japanese architecture journals or attractive technical books from Europeaan publishers. Someone you knew was always working the desk or restocking or shopping. Both bookshops were meeting places, exhibition spaces and vital sources of debate. Alas, neither of them exist today: Yukio was a victim of a now-forgotten late-’90s downturn, and Urban Center closed in the winter of 2010, moving out with its sponsor organization, The Municipal Arts Society.

In Chicago, the late, great Prairie Avenue served the same purpose: half living room, half library. Named after the historic and architecturally important street on Chicago’s South Side, the three-storey, 9,000 square-foot building was one of the most beautiful bookshops east or west of the Mississippi, punctuated as it was with pristine examples of early 20th-century furniture and lighting fixtures. Felled by the slump in illustrated book sales and a high state sales tax on purchases, as well as by a slow (some say too slow) adaptation to online selling themselves, too many of Prairie’s browsers were simply going home and buying books online; it sold off its stock at a steep discount and shut its doors in the summer of 2009 (around the same time that a nearby Borders also closed, though years after an often busy Rizzoli bookshop shuttered its doors). The decline of the independent, specialized bookshop seemed well underway.

For the first time in a decade, last summer I found myself browsing the crowded aisles and tables of William Stout Architectural Books in San Francisco’s North Beach. The shop has been a mainstay of the art, architecture and design community in the Bay Area since the mid-1980s (a Berkeley store opened in 2010, specializing in rare and out-of-print titles). Without a consistent place in New York to indulge my art and architecture book habit, stepping into Stout was a slightly overwhelming experience: dozens of foreign titles I’d not yet seen in New York caught my eye, and I proceeded indulgently to pat the covers and spines of well-designed European university publications and titles from small Japanese presses. To my surprise, I wasn’t alone. The shop was as bustling as I’d ever remembered seeing it. In the hour I spent there, not including my own exercise in wallet-opening, I witnessed three large purchases, which might sound measly, but architecture books aren’t cheap.

Chase Booker, manager and buyer at Stout, told me later by e-mailthat ‘things do seem to be picking up. This past holiday season looks to have been much stronger than the year before, with many new titles flying off the shelves as soon as we get them, as happened with the recent book on Peter Zumthor’s project for the Serpentine Gallery [...] One hopes that this is a sign of increased optimism, that maybe people are finding they are better able to afford buying things like books after a tough few years. Things are certainly not “back to normal” for everybody, but they might be looking up at the very least.’

Back home in New York shone a few more rays of hope. Along with the very fine architecture and art bookshop, Archivia Books, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and 192 Books, in Chelsea, which carries artists’ monographs and a very good general inventory, the opening of Van Alen Books, a design and architecture bookshop run by the not-for-profit architecture and urbanism organization Van Alen Institute, in the Flatiron District, hopes to take over where Urban Center left off. The small space, designed by LOT-EK, features a mini amphitheatre created from recycled doors, where events, readings and ‘summits’ can take place. Sarah Farwell, programme manager for the shop, says: ‘We’re all about bringing people together to discuss and debate the world of books, and we treasure the importance of browsing books as physical artefacts.’

The Werkplaats Typografie stand at the New York Art Book Fair, 2009. Courtesy New York Art Book Fair

Soon after I returned from California, the annual New York Art Book Fair was opening. Now in its seventh year, it attracts small independent presses, artists and designers who self publish, and respected antiquarian booksellers (like the late John McWhinnie) and D.A.P.’s retail arm, ArtBook, among others. Hosted by DIY art book stalwart Printed Matter every September (and held at MoMA PS1 for the last two years) the fair is always an extraordinary display of the energy and experimentation behind illustrated book publishing. Rather than the anticipated slowdown in the production and release of art and architecture books, mimicking the market fluctuations that have pushed bookstores over the ledge, the sheer number of books on display at the Fair is always staggering.

Carlos Solis, buyer at Van Alen Books, concurs: ‘In the past few years, there has been an increase in beautifully designed, wonderfully written books on topics that are of direct interest to our core audience. Because of our unique position as an advocate for architecture and design books, many publishers have offered us favourable terms. I think there is a real concern in the publishing world that Amazon is cannibalizing the industry, and so publishers are increasingly willing to look for new, experimental tactics to find a community for their books. And that’s precisely how we see our role: as a matchmaker between the design and publishing communities.’ Across the Atlantic, however, in Belgium, at the excellent Copyright that has branches in Ghent and Antwerp, co-owner Hilde Peleman bemoans the dearth of imagination in much contemporary publishing: ‘So many books are published on the same subjects, as if publishers have no inspiration and copy each other. We still try to make our own personal selection of the titles coming up, and keep a stock of the most important books on architects, artists, fashion designers and photographers.’

While trade book sales seem to have shifted markedly to the e-book, general interest bookshops close by the dozen, and if the surge of e-readers on my daily commute is sounding the death-knell for traditional publishing, why is it that specialty art and architecture bookshops – new ones, and those that have managed to hang on – seem to be experiencing something of a high water mark? Despite enterprises like artist Paul Chan’s Badlands Unlimited, which is publishing multi-platform art books, perhaps it’s because the traditional art book will, by definition, never go solely digital. Other champions of emerging artists, new theory, criticism and experimental fiction in print include the not-for-profit UK-based Four Corners and Bookworks and the ever-meticulous Sternberg Press in Germany.

Maybe it has something to do with the relative stability in the (already high) price point of illustrated books. Of course, as Chase Booker puts it: ‘The elephant in the room is the effect of Internet sellers like Amazon on sales. With some exceptions, many publishers’ illustrated books are heavily discounted on Amazon. While the discount may not be as significant compared to discounts on trade and mass-market paperbacks, it does seem to cut into our sales. Of course, it might be the case that people are buying fewer books in general, rather than buying as many as they once did; nevertheless, there does seem to be some effect.’ Solis agrees, but adds: ‘That said, we have a large percentage of books that are either unavailable on Amazon or listed on Amazon either at or greater than the publisher’s list price. We hope that by bringing smaller independent and international publishers to our patrons, we are expanding not only the architecture bookshelf but the discourse as well.’

It’s a crucial point. And even taking into consideration ‘the putative decline of bookstores’ Booker, at Stout, says: ‘People still enjoy browsing – there’s still a thrill of the unpredictable.’ There is, of course, no substitute for the displays of a thoughtful and informed book buyer that reflect local exhibitions, highlight recent lectures, or relevant local history.

It’s easy to see what amounts to the difference between the experience of independent specialized shops and the grasp of online retailers such as Amazon, where searching is easy, but discovering is hard. As Solis says: ‘The art book customer does not necessarily buy independent, but there is a greater chance that they privilege the experience of browsing, as well as the aesthetic qualities of the book.’

Eugenia Bell is design editor of frieze