A week or so before the recent NY Art Book Fair at PS1, Nicholas Gottlund of independent publisher Gottlund Verlag posted a ten-second clip from Seinfeld to his blog. ”What is this obsession people have with books?” Jerry asks George, “They put them in their houses like they’re trophies. What do you need it for after you read it?”
George’s response—”They’re my books!”—is typical of George and probably plenty of other bibliophiles out there. But, even as many people (including my own parents) do the lion’s share of their reading on a Kindle these days, there are plenty of other less selfish reasons to go on clinging to the printed page. At the NY Art Book Fair, the profusion of independent publishers made a fine case for clearing out space on the shelves for books, whether they’re destined to be trophies or not.
Established in 2007, Gottlund Verlag is one of them. “Verlag” is the German word for “publisher,” and although Gottlund isn’t based in Germany (he works out of studios in Baltimore, MD and Kutztown, PA) the Teutonic flavoring is no mere affectation. The studio is housed in a picturesque nineteenth century Pennsylvania Dutch barn. There’s even hex signs painted on the walls. From this enchanting space, Gottlund collaborates with artists like photographers Coley Brown and Ed Panar on every step of the book’s design before producing them by hand in the studio. He and many of the other publishers were on hand at the fair to sell their wares and talk shop.
The entire fair was ripe with confabbing. I tripped into it myself in a corner room of PS1 given over to Werkplaats Typografie, a graduate design program in Arnhem, The Netherlands. The room had been turned into the “Mary Shelley Facsimile Library” of print media scanned and reproduced by current students in the program. As one of the students, Laure Giletti, explained to me, each student compiled a list of sources they’re interested in and wrote a text stringing them together. These “Frankensteined” annotated bibliographies were bound into nifty booklets and sold for three bucks each. Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, the booklets are held together by glue, not stitching. The room was outfitted with coffee and cookies to encourage fellow bookworms to hang out and swap more references. Giletti reminded me of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book and I went on and on about the Whole Earth Catalog I had pored over earlier in the day.
Other folks were sharing their reference points too. Golden Age was also at the fair with their book Reference Work, published during a recent exhibition at the MCA Chicago. In it, proprietors Martine Syms and Marco Kane Braunschweiler share their favorite business books, self-help resources, a business course syllabus, and personal notes on operating their store in Chicago. As they note, there’s no clear roadmap for running a successful art book shop. This makes searching out business aids that do exist—think of that aisle in any chain bookstore with the cringe-inducing covers—a necessity. The unapologetically commercial world of business self-help publishing might seem like the last place artists might look to for value, but Syms and Braunschweiler make the case that, if properly distilled, the references gathered in their book might actually prove helpful. It seems to me that this is the most any bibliophile could ask of the shelves sagging under the weight of his or her books. Rather than becoming trophies, one might hope that some volatile drops of wisdom might seep out from the shelves and, pooling together, set off sparks that bring the monster to life.