Monday, January 23, 2012

Vamp and Tramp Booksellers

News of a kind: I had a lovely conversation via Skype with a literary agent who has taken an interest in my manuscript. She was kind and complimentary. But more than that, she was impressive and I am impressed with the agency she works for. It felt like it could be a home for me and some of my work. Keep your fingers crossed. 

The following is as interview with Bill, my book dealer and proprietor of Vamp and Tramp booksellers, and was originally published in JAB 28.

Bill Stewart describes himself as “a lapsed high school English teacher.” In 1999 his long and comforting obsession with books took a wonderful turn when Ron King helped him realize that books can be more than just a container for stories or information. Since 2004, along with his wife Vicky, they have averaged 40 – 50,000 miles in a minivan across the US taking the works they represent to private and institutional collectors.

Brandon Graham-Vamp and Tramp serves an important service for many book artists. Can you summarize how you came operate Vamp and Tramp. When exactly did you open your doors? And was Vamp and Tramp previously operated by another book dealer?

Bill Stewart- In 1995, the early days of internet bookselling, we had a by-appointment site, which no one visited, and tried every way we could think of to sell books – none very successful. Three or four years later, I stumbled across Ron King's Circle Press edition of Antony & Cleopatra, and was hooked. We began carrying more and more contemporary fine press and artists' books. At about that time, we opened a shop in Birmingham, with modern firsts, artists' books, fine press books, children's books, Alabama history books – anything we could think of to sell and pay the monthly rent. In December 2003, we had run out of money to lose, and were presented with a chance to acquire Califia Books. Vicky and I decided to put our time, energy, and resources into what really excited us – contemporary fine press and artists' books. In 6 weeks we closed our open shop, divested ourselves of 4,500 rare books and art works (by the end, we were half art gallery and half book gallery), and took to the road. The acquisition of Califia meant mostly contacts with many new (to us) book artists and access to some hitherto unplumbed institutional buyers. And because of the nature of the books – the physical aspects being so central – we decided that the only way to do this successfully, and in a way ethically, would be to take the books to the potential customers. Besides, the road trip aspect was fun, or seemed as if it would be fun. So while we did acquire Califia, we incorporated parts, namely artist and customer contacts, into what we were already doing. What really changed for us was the chance to devote ourselves full time to driving the books across the country.

BG- How do find the books you sell? Who purchases them? What percentage of books do you sell at shows, to special collections libraries, and through your website?

BS- When we began, because Ron King was our entry, we were passed around by mostly British presses and artists. They had a Yank with a gleam in his eye and some seed money in his pocket. Ron introduced us to the Randles (Whittington Press), who introduced us to Simon Lawrence (Fleece Press), who …..
Now, most of the books find us. Hardly a week goes by that we don't get queries from one or a number of artists/presses about representation. And when we return from a showing/selling trip, it's like Christmas – new work by artists/presses we already represent and new work by new (to us) artists.
By far, the majority of our sales are to institutional customers, and the large majority of those are to college and university libraries, Special Collections libraries in the main, but a large number of Art Libraries too; a much smaller portion of sales to museums (almost exclusively to the Library portion of the museums, not to the general collection), and a (relatively) small number of private collectors.
Our sales at shows, which we do fewer and fewer of each year because it is not a very good use of our time, are almost nil. We do the shows to support the sponsoring groups, show the flag, and educate people about book art. A good show for us means no books baptized by wine, one or two more places to call on, and – most important – a few new artists/presses interested in us representing their work.
An increasing number of sales, although still small compared to the sales generated by our calls on institutions, comes from the web site. Vicky and Desmond Lim, who we hire to do the actual uploading, etc, work hard to keep the website up to date. It is in the main an educational tool, showing, we hope, the glories of the genre. And although sales from the website has been increasing, unless people are experienced in the book arts and/or know what they are looking for, we find that nothing substitutes for putting the actual work in their hands.

BG- You represent fine press literary books as well as artist’s books. Is there a dividing line between artists’ books and fine press, or is there a spectrum of books which bridge the two categories?

BS- Artists' books resist definition. This protean nature is part of their glory. To us, there is no sharp dividing line. If forced, we have been known to say (with fingers crossed) that to us fine press books are works in which printing predominates (over structure or other material attributes) and are usually codex in format. They are works that my parents would recognize as books. Artists' books are works in which the physical attributes takes on an expressive role on par with text and images. They are works that push the envelope of what a book is or can be. These two generalizations don't include some things we think of as artists' books – sculptural books being an obvious omission. And, yes, there are many works with a foot planted firmly on each side of the non-existent line. The only barely adequate way to introduce the concept of artists' books to the uninitiated is to show them a table full of examples. Then they can come up with a definition of their own.

BG- The marriage of art and commerce can be complicated. Are decisions about what you choose to represent as a dealer shaped by the reality of the market? Do you ever reject work you personally like, because you know there will be no market? How do the preferences of those people and institutions you sell to affect your choices?

BS- Our tastes are eclectic. We tend to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Our decisions on what to represent are abjectly personal and subjective. Either Vicky or I – and in the best cases, which happens more often than not (because of who we are and why we are together and not because anything inherent in the books), both of us – have to connect to and like the book. We are most effective with books we can honestly and enthusiastically be excited about. The only criterion we try to adhere to – and try is the operative word here – is this: we try not to take on books we don't think we can place. So, yes, there is some unspoken and indescribable formula that incorporates our tastes and our sense of our customers' tastes – and their budgets. Toss them in a pot, add spit and laughter (with a good night's sleep and no impending catastrophes as helpful ingredients), and we present a menu that we hope will nourish artists and buyers – and keep us in business.

BG- The spectrum of work in the field of artist books is very broad. I know you represent a wide cross-section of the activity in the field. If you were to characterize the curatorial bent of the artist’s books you represent, how would you describe it?

BS- The curatorial bent, if I understand that term at all, is so broad and varied that any attempt to generalize would yield little that would be helpful. One thing we do tell artists over and over is that we sell more books because of their subject than we do because of their technique or because they are artists' books. Many institutions have no tradition of or interest in collecting fine press or artists' books per se. But they do recognize that the people who use their collections connect to these types of books. So they like adding artists' books to their culinary collection, or their natural science books. Or they might have professors working in gender studies. To some degree, we try to take libraries books that complement things they are already doing, interests they already have.

BG- Do you feel part of your role is to educate the public about Artist’s Books? How does that play out?

BS- Certainly. As we travel, we give presentations wherever we can find an audience. Our usual presentation is a general introduction to artists' books. Most people, even art students and people with extensive grounding and experience in the arts, have had little experience with the genre, and so we spend most of the time showing examples from the books we're carrying. We do not do a PowerPoint presentation or slide show, preferring to use the actual books we represent to show as wide a variety as we can – in format, materials, price, content, etc – examples of what's being done by contemporary book artists. One title we've used: "Artists' Books: When the Goblet Becomes the Wine."
It seems to work best if we do the show-and-tell for 45-60 minutes, but we always like to allow time for the audience to handle the books. If they don't get to play with artists' books, they're not really getting the full experience.
If needed, we can slant this is a variety of ways: for people who are experienced and serious practitioners we talk about trends and/or about the business of being a book artist and/or what makes for a successful artists' book (in our opinion); for groups that think the physical book is a dinosaur, we've talked about "Further Adventures (and Pleasures) with the Physical Book."
We prefer not doing a history of the genre, since that's not our interest or area of expertise. Any historical context is brief and, we've found, quickly forgotten. If the audience remembers anything, they remember the books – and the Wow.

BG- As the economic situation became more dire, the U.S. economy slipped into recession, and arts funding became tighter, did you employee any specific strategies to help deal with the shifting economics? Was increased internet sales and marketing a part of that strategy? And do you sell to a different audience via your website than face to face?

BS- No specific strategies, unless our version of common sense qualifies. We realized that orders would be smaller (most institutional orders are for multiple titles) and that therefore we would have to call on more places to generate anywhere near the same sales. At the same time, every day on the road adds to expenses, so our trips became shorter in duration even though we called on more potential customers. And the leisurely – and fun – days when we did studio visits decreased. At least two calls a day became the norm, and we now more rigorously try to limit long driving days on the weekends, when no one wants to see us anyway.
Vicky instituted On-Line Catalogs a year or two ago, quarterly (sort of) offerings generally grouped around a subject. The most successful recent catalogs have been "Fifty under $50." She's done variations of this concept, and all have been (relatively) successful.
We are benefactors of what we've created. Most institutions buy as a result of our visits and not from our website. There are a number of librarians who seem regularly to check the "New Arrivals" section of our site, and do place orders or make "bring this when you come" requests, but in general, the website brings orders from people we don't know. Although it's not an absolute, most web site orders are not for higher priced items, which makes sense, especially for new customers, reluctant to spend large sums with unknown dealers.

BG-Lastly, from your perspective, do you see any interesting shifts in the Artist Book field over the past several years?

BS-Just that more and more is being created. And as the means of production becomes available and affordable to more artists, we see more use of new technology. I suspect the avant garde is as present and active as it always has been, but we see little of it – or are too hidebound to recognize it.

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