It’s no secret that the economy has been unkind to booksellers in recent years. Brick-and-mortar stores are closing left and right, and the few that remain standing often struggle to keep their doors open. But a small outlet dedicated to the niche market of artists’ books is bucking that trend.
Printed Matter, the venerable New York nonprofit dedicated to the “dissemination, understanding and appreciation of artists’ books,” opened up its first satellite location last Friday. The outpost is located in the lobby of the Swiss Institute’s new Annabelle Selldorf-designed building in the East Village.
“It’s kind of amazing,” says Max Schumann, Printer Matter’s executive director. “We’re actually in a period of growth.”
Schumann, who has overseen the organization since 2015, reports that it is taking on new staff, broadening its distribution, and increasing its programming. It’s also bringing in more sales.
Printed Matter was founded in 1976 by a group of artists and writers that included Sol LeWitt and Lucy Lippard. It began as a publishing house but quickly morphed into a bookstore known for selling artists’ books, zines, posters, and other creative products for affordable prices. Since then, the bookseller has maintained that ethos—and pricing—even as its cultural footprint has stretched beyond its humble beginnings. Today, Printed Matter is home to public events and exhibitions, and the organization sponsors two of the world’s largest art book fairs.
How has it been able to stay alive when even the most commercially viable of bookstores have folded?
“It’s a response to something much bigger, which is a real human, social, and political need for this stuff in published form,” Schumann says. “Yes, the commercial industry is in a prolonged period of crisis due to the proliferation of digital media. But the thing about artists’ books and other forms of creative publishing is the uniqueness and tactility—that can’t be reduced to an iPhone.”
Schumann also points to the communal aspect of producing and distributing artists’ books. “People appreciate that the virtual space does not displace the need for real social and human communities as well,” he says.
Since its inception, Printed Matter has been associated with West Side neighborhoods—first in Tribeca and then SoHo before relocating north to Chelsea in 2005. However, it’s doubtful the organization will have any trouble fitting into the East Village. “The neighborhood’s legacy is really meaningful for us, an organization that aligns itself with experimentation and creativity and radical spirit,” Schumann says, pointing to the East Village’s long history as a hub of artistic activity—from the Beats and counterculture movements of the ’50s and ‘60s to the rise of punk rock and new wave in the ’70s and ’80s.
Printed Matter has also proven an ability to adapt to new places and changing times. The store moved to its current location on Eleventh Avenue three years ago—a spot that has been very successful yet still presents geographic limitations.
“We’re really out on the left side here. The next stop is practically New Jersey,” Schumann says, laughing. The store’s traffic took a hit after moving from Tenth Avenue, a busy boulevard, to a less popular one. The numbers have bounced back, but Schumann notes that most of the traffic is destination traffic—as in people who are seeking the store out.
That’s not a bad problem to have, but the big benefit of the St. Marks location, Schumann explains, is “exposure to an uninitiated public.”
“That is really what our mission is about—to spread the word artists’ books to people who maybe aren’t familiar with them or contemporary art in general. It’s an amazing opportunity to reach new and broader and more diverse audiences.”
In celebration of the expansion, Schumman and his staff provided artnet News with a short list of artists’ books—most of which boast a “historical resonance with the East Village.” See their recommendations below.
The Paranoid’s Primer by Richard O. Tyler, 1961
Richard O. Tyler ran the Uranian Press out of his home on East 4th Street between Avenues C and D from 1959 until his death in 1983. Tyler hawked his self-printed artists’ chapbooks, broadsides, and manifestos out of a pushcart, which he commandeered through the streets of the East and West Villages. Featuring woodcuts and deep etch relief prints from Tyler, the texts in The Paranoid’s Primer are accompanied by striking red and monochromatic graphic images, ranging from scenes depicting the welcoming of Armageddon and interpretations of psychotic states. It’s signed and numbered, rubber stamped with an embossed seal.
Fuck You, edited by Ed Sanders, 1964
Founded and edited by Ed Sanders of the proto hippy-punk-folk band the Fugs, Fuck You: a Magazine of the Arts was a mimeographed literary journal which ran for 13 issues between 1962 and 1965. Distributed through the Peace Eye Bookstore—also founded by Sanders—in the East Village, Fuck You was an experimental literary forum which advocated for the legalization of marijuana, the use of psychedelic drugs, and for free love and sexual promiscuity. The store was famously raided and temporarily closed by the police in 1966, with Sanders arrested and charged with obscenity. Sanders was later acquitted with the aid of the ACLU.
Walls Paper by Gordon Matta-Clark, 1973
A companion to his anarchitectural practice, Gordon Matta-Clark’s Walls Paper is comprised of recolored black-and-white photographs of peeling wallpaper and paint in derelict Bronx tenements. As he did with actual buildings, Matta-Clark cut the photos in half, so when flipping through the book, the images can be mixed and matched with one another.
Publishing Manifestos by Michalis Pichler, 2018
A collection of critical texts engaging with the field of publishing, featuring texts by Tauba Auerbach, Paul Chan, and Adrian Piper, among many other notable names.
Pansy Beat by Michael Economy, 2018
Pansy Beat was a fanzine published by Michael Economy for one year, from 1989 to 1990. Covering the downtown gay and drag club scene of the day, each issue included art, interviews with performers, and a free condom. This book includes reprinted versions of all five Pansy Beat issues, as well as new essays and interviews, and a grip of never-before-seen photographs.
Fear Indexing the X-Files by Nora Khan and Steven Warwick, 2017
For this 2017 book published by Primary Information, artists and writers Nora Khan and Steven Warwick indexed all of the fears that were portrayed in the first nine seasons of The X-Files—the popular Fox series that aired from 1992 to 2002. The show’s themes are connected to the political and technological shifts that took place during its run—from final throws of the Cold War to the rise of the internet.
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