Tuesday, October 1, 2013

How not to sell photo books

It pains me to say this but Powell's Books is no longer the best place in Portland for photo books. It has been dethroned by Ampersand. This trend has been gradually developing for the past few years, ever since Ampersand was founded in 2008. But until recently the contest was less settled. A case could be made for either store, depending on what type of book one was looking for or what price range. Certainly Powell's held the edge when it came to sheer volume, and for used books, while Ampersand had the trendy new titles.

But several visits to both stores over the past few months have convinced me that Ampersand is now the clear victor, and the gap seems to widen with each passing month. More and more the stacks at Powell's take on the sheen of an old antique shop. The shelves are lined mostly with undesirable detritus which sits idly month after month. Maybe someone comes along with a duster occasionally. New books still filter in on a regular basis, but they are generally limited. There are no books, for example, by Mack, Morel, Little Big Man, TBW, Radius, A Jump, Little Brown Mushroom, Dashwood, Gottlund, or Loosestrife. No books from this list. Twin Palms, Steidl and Nazraeli make occasional appearances at Powell's, but often as used books, sold by chance rather than by plan. 


In other words, a trip to Powell's is a time warp back to the early 90s before the current photo book renaissance ever happened. I should know, because the early 90s is when I first began going there. Back when I got into photography the Powell's photo section was my de facto learning library. It was crammed into a windowless downstairs hall, near where the book statue is now on the corner of 11th and Couch. Around 1995 I began a habit of scouring the stacks every few weeks, and that's where I built most of my photo book collection, at least in the early years.

But even when I didn't buy books there I used Powell's to teach myself. I could see who had made what. Which titles were important. Which books stayed in print and which were remaindered. Which books were worth what. I could see what was new, what was old, and basically what was what. I'm eternally grateful for that resource, because for photographers more than for any other art form, books are the way we communicate. When a photographers wants to send a statement into the world, he or she does it between two covers. And for a while Powell's was the best at collecting these communiqués in one spot. Certainly it was the best in Oregon, and maybe on the West Coast. 

I kept visiting the photo section over the years, regularly looking and buying, through the remodel, to its current location on the third floor. The catbird seat! With windows overlooking the city below. Clearly someone in Powell's management valued photo books. There was a filter, and once a book had made it through to the floor, it was treated with respect. It was part of a special group, the photo section.

Powell's (Photo section highlighted)

That's why the condition today is disappointing. The photo book landscape has changed radically since the 90s but Powell's hasn't. Sure, their stacks are still a great resource for learning the canon, with standard works on Frank, Parr, Atget, Arbus, and the other usual suspects. But when it comes to current photography, Powell's seems uninterested. Their main publisher of recent books is friggin' Aperture. Need I say more?

Enter Ampersand. When Myles first opened his shop, he borrowed a page from Powell's philosophy, selling a combination of new and used titles. I think it was roughly an even split in the early days. In 2011 the space doubled, and gradually the mix shifted, or perhaps Myles just sold off his used inventory. For whatever reason the store now stocks mostly new books. But not just any. Every book in the store seems carefully considered. No titles wind up there by accident. Often I will hear about new books online which sound promising, but they are expensive and I don't want to fork out money sight unseen. If the book is worthwhile, there's a good chance I can see it at Ampersand. 

OK, so the grand old bookstore fades while the small boutique shop gains a footing. It's a familiar story, the tale of American bookstores everywhere. Over the past decade thousands of independent bookstores have closed. Because the basic equation is tough. If a customer has a sense of what they want, why visit a store? Why not buy online for less money and have it show up in the mailbox? Better yet, why not buy the e-Book and have it delivered digitally? I don't envy the business climate. Even though I buy a lot of books, I wouldn't want to sell them.

So what's a bookstore to do? The divergent strategies of Powell's and Ampersand may point the way forward. What Ampersand realizes is that a bookstore isn't just a merchant. It's a special collection on display. And the way a collection works is similar to a museum. A collection reflects a conscious mind, one which has carefully curated work, organized it, and decided what to show and what not to. When a person enters that collection, especially after several visits, they learn to trust the curator. They know that if something shows up in the store, chances are it will be worth looking at. This is why people museums charge admission while antique shops are free.

I don't patronize fashion boutiques but I imagine they operate by the same principle. A shopper learns to trust the taste of the owner. Whatever they find in the store will have the imprimatur of pre-selected cool. This is how a customer can discover new projects, stuff they didn't even know they liked. And after a customer has spent some time browsing the collection, there's a bonus. They can go home with something! Amazon can't compete with that. Barnes and Noble can't compete, nor can E-Books. That experience is best fostered by a well managed physical store, one with a clear curatorial vision.  

I'm not sure why Powell's isn't like that. Maybe it's too difficult to translate strong curating into a large volume setting? For whatever reason, the Powell's shelves feel less like a collection than the random assortment typical of a municipal library. Who knows what's in there? Maybe some of it's good, maybe it isn't. But there doesn't seem anyone in charge. That's not entirely a bad thing. Assorted used books sometimes offer treasures. But I think the situation would be more bearable if those musty stacks were balanced with contemporary energy. These are the glory days of photo books! Why are those books not found at Powell's? 

This doesn't mean I can't still find stuff there. I can, and sometimes by surprise. But I think it's very tough to run a successful photo section by that strategy. Why would someone shop there? Why not browse Amazon in your pajamas? Or better yet, why not visit Ampersand?


Anonymous said...

A well-curated store is of course why so many people are Trader Joes addicts. Choice is overrated. When presented with too many options, we call an expert.

For a long time, I used to point people toward a small little music shop in Berkeley called A Musical Offering which specialized in "classical" music. Everyone's first reaction when entering was, "This is it? There's nothing here." Then they started browsing and the reactions universally changed to "One of each please." I'm not sure if the shop is still alive or if the buyer is the same though. But for a while, yeah, it was a cut above everywhere else.

microcord said...

Welcome back, B! And I love the new layout, which doesn't confuse my Android, which in turn means I can read it in bed or on the train.

I like the sound of Powells. If I had an hour free in Portland, that's where I'd go.

There are no books, for example, by Mack, Morel, Little Big Man, TBW, Radius, A Jump, Little Brown Mushroom, Dashwood, Gottlund, or Loosestrife.


Three among those, I've never heard of. As for the other seven, it's often interesting to read about their books. The books may be very big, or very small, or have prettily rounded corners, or include little booklets that fall onto the floor when least expected, or have rail tickets and other ephemera stuck inside, or lack spines, or come in boxes, or otherwise appeal to my inner ten-year-old, but I'm rarely tempted to buy. (I often see the books at the exquisitely fashionable Tsutaya in Daikan'yama, a [push]bike ride from home.) As far as I remember, I've got a total of four books from the lot of them: one's deadly boring, one's intermittently interesting, and two are keepers. (I do want to see Martin Kollar's new book from Mack, and I also notice that Mack promises a new book from Rosalind Solomon.)

By contrast, this year boring old Aperture has put out a collection by Sergio Larraín and is about to put out the culminating volume of the Sochi Project. Boring! (not).

Tired old bookstores of course tend to sell tired old books. Recently, in a humdrum branch of the reliably depressing "Book Off", I found a cheap copy of Cristina García Rodero's España oculta. Boring cover design, boring page design -- even the publisher's name (Smithsonian Institution Press) is boring. The spine looks boring on my shelf. But great photos! (All in a PDF, redesigned with augmented ugliness.)

Joseph Bayot said...

Absolutely agree. I think this applies for bookstores as well as other industries beyond the ones you mentioned.

I feel the same way about my favorite restaurants. If I know what photo book I'm looking to buy, I can certainly order it off Amazon. If I'm craving a dish or food in particular, I can go to a specific restaurant to get it. But my FAVORITE restaurants have carefully curated and limited menus (http://thirtyacres.tumblr.com/menu) and I know that the chef is proud of every single item he puts on the menu. Otherwise he wouldn't even offer it.

Blake Andrews said...

@Microcord, I agree that many of the hot new publishers make books that fall flat. Most of them I wouldn't buy. But some are very good. And there is an energy and freshness to the scene that I think Powell's is missing out on. I think it's pretty hard to run a bookstore without carrying Mack, for example, unless you completely have your head in sand.

I like browsing used stores, but only when the stock is consistently recharged with treasures. Maybe I go to Powell's too often. But it's pretty rare nowadays to see something there that really jumps off the shelf and grabs me. But I still go regularly. Go figure...

microcord said...

Mack. . . . I read a lot of praise for Bertien Van Manen's Let's sit down before we go, and the sample jpegs looked interesting, so when I noticed an "as new" copy going for around $25 I ordered it. Well, the few sample jpegs translate into good pages, but much of of the rest looks like filler to me. Beats me why copies go for $100 plus. However, it's clear that a certain demographic is very excited over it, so I'll hang on to my copy a bit longer in the hope that the thing is talked up in "Parr/Badger 3" and the price rises still further.

I forgot before: within Mack's what's-new list, I'm interested not only in Martin Kollar's new book but also Tony Ray-Jones' American Colour 1962-1965. But both Kollar and Ray-Jones have been published elsewhere: even if Mack does a fine job for both (and I hope it does), I'd guess the same photos could come out in books from Dewi Lewis or Actes Sud or wherever.

What's your fave Mackbook, Blake?

Blake Andrews said...

I like the Bertien Van Manen book a lot. Maybe she's not for everyone, but I think she's an incredible photographer. I also like recent Mack books by Vanessa Winship, Torbjørn Rødland, Gerry Johansson, Martin Lange, Roe Ethridge, and Julian Germain. Looking forward to Martin Kollar. Yes, the same photos could be published by Dewi Lewis or Hatje Cantz or whoever. But they aren't. Publishers are like bookstores. You learn to trust certain ones. And I've grown fond of Mack.

microcord said...

There's certainly something to Johansson's books. But no matter how worthy they may be, they bore me. Two or three of the others you mention: I've seen the covers, picked them up, looked at them, yawned, put them down.

Winship's book is one I haven't seen. What I read about it doesn't excite me. The book by her that I do want to see is Schwarzes Meer (not from Mack). The JPEGs look good.

microcord said...

"they bore me"

Sleepily and sloppily written; my apologies to Gerry and B. No, they don't bore me. Instead, they just leave me cold.

Very likely there's something missing in me. Another possible indicator: a long time ago I bought a copy of Andrew Borowiec's Along the Ohio (not Mack but instead Johns Hopkins UP), and every now and again I take it off my shelf and look at it; I understand the praise won by this book together with others like it, and I know what the man's trying to do; but my brain nevertheless refuses to thrill to the result.

Joe Reifer said...

The big, established store offers the serendipity of finding older used books for a good price. I got a Japanese edition of a William Lesch book for $9 on my last visit.

The small, curated store scratches the new school Soth itch.

So that's good, right? It's not either/or. You're lucky to have both in your town.