installation view

 

THE INDEPENDENT BOOKSHOP: ART VS COMMERCE—SCALO • NEW YORK

This show, a “bookshop of the future,” was commissioned by Scalo Publishers and shown in Scalo’s gallery. It offered every book that Scalo has ever published since beginning ten years ago. Robert Frank is for sale. Tina Barney is for sale. Gilles Peress is for sale. But like the man said, “you can have the car in any color as long as it’s black.”

Designed by Messana O’Rorke architects, the bookshop functions traditionally in that money can be exchanged for books. But it cannot be entered. Four walls composed of wood and stainless steel shelving extend from floor to ceiling, lined with multiple copies of each title. Inside the unit there is a chair, a small table and a reading lamp. The spaces made by each shelf are almost big enough to crawl through. But disturbing such a setting would be unseemly. A discreetly placed radio stays tuned continuously to the classical station. The only other sound is the loud hum of fluorescents that illuminate each piece of the cage of books.

By denying the physical access of an independent bookshop, the architects suggest the pleasures and sterility of cyberspace, while making a specimen slide of supposedly highbrow activity. The single lamp makes a still life of domestic and contemplative time, without a body to fill the scene. What does it take to turn atmosphere into content? William Gibson’s early naming of the “Matrix” was vivid enough to have a continuing influence on culture. But his descriptions were composed on an old typewriter. Is the pleasure of an independent bookshop ultimately little more than shining dustmotes, eccentric staff and some comfortable chairs? Or is it the bookshop’s preservation of a shared canon of knowledge, contained in a physical space?

A desire for containment seems to register with Messana O’Rorke architects. A ’97 project, “angel’s edge”, had a private home situated on an oceanside cliff, with the lawn contained within the building, allowing grassland to “remain unadulterated.” According to their promotional literature, “direct views of the ocean are obscured so as to maximize their impact.” A proposed design for a futuristic, multipurpose space notes that while machines “lack the ability to hypothesize . . . information storage is limitless.” The pleasure of the corporate bookstore is based on an apparently limitless array of material, arranged in large retail displays, and on the swift inventory allowed by computer databases.

Are books material products at all? When seen in a gallery setting, the books drew new attention through the variety of textures and weight of their papers. The notion of a book having a life and an individual history remains linked to the independent bookshop. While at Scalo’s gallery I watched a woman come in with $40 and try to buy a book. As she picked titles, each turned out to be too expensive. After a while she simply asked for a $40 book and left with it. I don’t remember the title or artist, but the final purchase was of medium weight and height, and had a greenish cover.

Because every, and only Scalo product is offered, the shop is a physical representation of the Scalo canon—selective but complete when viewed as a set. The canonical list has effected the life of books starting with illuminated manuscripts. While the content of a canon fuels culture wars, the means by which books are made present further problems. When information storage is limitless and the means of production swift, is a canonical list—a complete, perfect collection of all that is existent—the same as a canon?

The canonical list is unbroken. It is a closed figure. Must the library of Congress have a physical copy of every book ever published? The independent bookshop is imagined as incomplete, reflecting the specific tastes of its denizens and the meandering lives of used books. The corporate as well as the incorporeal, online bookseller appears to offer completeness by guaranteeing availability. This guarantee is accomplished by the interchangeability of the products on the list. The controversy over Jonathan Franzens’ disdain for the now-defunct Oprah book club seemed to be based on the idea of access, and how much access is good for the life of a book.

Are we on the same page? In the back room, wooden pews of ascending height have books arranged for unobserved browsing. The room is well lit after the darkness of the cage installation. The physical cues of material and dimension set up a house of worship with prayer books of satisfying heft. But each is different. In the bookshop of the future, specialization seems to be a way to preserve the list. The challenge is to do so without cloistering books from touch. The notion of exactly what a book is continues to evolve. For some, the only book with a life of its own is the book of their god of choice. The first bible I ever touched was in a motel room, and I expected the pages to be blank, like the sheets on the bed and the surface of the soap. Do these qualities invite touch? Back at Scalo, the lights hum, the radio plays and each artist has stacks of fresh copies. The chair sits by itself.

Emma Wilcox

New York, New York
2002

 

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