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For the five years after college, I had what might have been my dream job, first as assistant and then as manager of a tiny, extremely effete bookstore specializing in avant-garde art and independent publishing. There is currently a 35-year retrospective of the store’s parent organization, Washington Project for the Arts, and I wrote this for the catalog. I also curated a small section of books, including most of my collection, and will be bringing in boxes of additional treasures for handling and discussion on 11/21 in a “Bookworks Show and Tell.”
As important as I posit that it was, the store was unlike anything before or since. My presentation will share my perspective as a collector, artist, and child of Fluxus.
Bookworks: It Mattered by Robin Moore
from the catalog, “Catalyst: 35 years of Washington Project for the Arts.”
How to talk about Bookworks, WPA’s gem of a bookstore? I’d paint an inadequate picture if I rhapsodized about individual volumes, writers/artists, or genres. This would be an impossible task anyway, since in its dozen years the store’s thousands of titles (or SKUs) changed nearly every day. Yet in many ways, the song remained the same. Bookworks was a treasured exception to everything, a tiny ballroom where you could dance with paradoxes and where the books played together after dark, making mischief like Brownies.
But how and why did Bookworks matter? First, it created and occupied a different place in American art and in Washington. Founded by Skuta Helgason, Simona Eftimiu, Don Russell and Helen Brunner, helmed in its glory days by Robert Scott Brooks, restructured into a viable business by Kyra Straussman, and then God-knows-what (kept alive?) under myself and then Ceridwen Morris, it promised visitors easy entry into the world of ideas, a revolution you could take home in your pocket (or in one of our signature coal-black paper bags). Each morning Bookworks stood up, dusted off its sparkling shelves of reinforced glass and Nordic birch ply, and presented strange, exotic pages from around the world.
Second, Bookworks was on to big ideas. Concepts behind the store’s stock were exceptionally powerful, and today they bear even sweeter fruit. The most consistent of these concepts was the strength of the individual voice. Ateliers such as the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester and Nexus Press in Atlanta purchased the means of production that would enable idiosyncratic content to find form and reach an audience. And, as we all knew, if you published it yourself it came out special. (Independent publishing is not unlike blogging: I see its origins especially in the graphical books we carried.) Like the best artwork, these books were interactive and challenging. Many of them, like comic books by diaristic artist/authors like Harvey Pekar, Joe Matt, and Chester Brown, shared the minutiae of daily life, following traditions set up by the self-published pioneers from Fluxus and performance art.
Bookworks, in a way, presided over the birth of the Web that now binds us all in productivity and pleasure. It was the only store in the city to carry Gareth Branwyn’s Beyond Cyberpunk “hypercard stack,” a graphical book on 3 floppy disks, as well as the first e-books, published by Voyager. Mail art, another thread that helped weave the store’s point of view, is more like the internet than anything we’ve seen since. There were many occasions in our store when the medium truly became the message, including the “First” International Decentralized Networkers Congress in 1992, a day when Bookworks invited folks to “DIY,” a term which meant little, then, beyond Xeroxing.
Third, like any other performance, Bookworks was intrinsically ephemeral. Each customer made the store what it was; every interaction changed the environment in a sort of literary Heisenberg principle. The margins of the inventory could be stretched to commercial lengths (we went as far as kittens-in-costumes books for awhile – how big a leap from William Wegman is that, really?) or reduced during boutiquey clique periods when it was hard to find a book whose few words weren’t in Icelandic (I’m not making this up). Every few years seemed to bring more bright ideas and the concomitant misunderstandings about how to make a buck with this esoteric, engaging niche of the gallery non-business.
Even with rotating inventory, changing staff, and an elastic agenda, I don’t think there were more than a handful of years in which Bookworks actually turned a profit. The free love of the sixties turned into the $10-per-idea of the cheap-art 70s and then into the cone-heeled capitalist conflicts of the Barbara Kruger 80s, but the store’s edgy tomes made for a better library than a retail site. After all, the staff treated it this way. On non-profit salaries, few of us had both $50 and the desire to take Joel-Peter Witkin home to meet Mother. (One fateful day I sold a book of Witkin’s photographs – still disturbing to me after years watching CSI — from Twin Palms Publishers to the head of the Christian Coalition. It ended up being waved in Congress.)
One fiscal year was an exception: 40,000 people tramped through WPA in 8 weeks for the Mapplethorpe blockbuster – a page A-1 phenomenon – but the catalog was NEVER in stock because of the curator’s transcendent standards in book publishing (we sold 400 on special order from one “desk copy.” My fingers still remember the ISBN. 88454-046-4). Even so, that summer’s foot traffic helped Bookworks do better than we knew how to cope with.
Other years, transforming Bookworks into a money-maker turned out to be a job much like putting a wild pig into a corset: first, it’s a hell of a lot of work, and then you (or your Board of Directors) wonder why it’s so damn hard to get the bacon out.
And downtown was – honestly? – dead. It is ironic that the revival of 7th Street, which deleted the artists, a basket that crashed while holding all of WPA’s eggs, has finally realized. It may be hard to remember when artists and hipsters were leaving downtown like rats, when the Navy memorial was a gigantic hole in the ground that put a thick coat of red dust on our earnest clean windows each day, and when folks who invested in future “downtown living” seemed Quixotic. As a Bookworks manager, hungry to sell ideas, I would have killed for a tenth of today’s foot traffic, which include curious lawyers and – say it ain’t so! – even arts professionals.
Before good coffee, before the Internet, books were a refuge and spark, where we found answers and more importantly the right questions, and how we traveled the world. Books aren’t dead yet, and they never will be, but our wonder has turned elsewhere now, our libraries are larger and cheaper and much more portable.
But if and when things break and the downtown condos turn into squats again, then, like the revolver, a paperback of Derrida will be ready to help change people’s minds. All you have to do is open the cover.
That’ll be $12.95, please, and we do accept Visa.