When James Jenkin prepared for Hurricane Sandy, moving his supply of books onto elevated pallets in the basement of his West Chelsea bookstore, he could not have imagined he would lose nearly 9,000 of them.
“Everything was as high as it physically could have been,” says Jenkin, who is the executive director of Printed Matter, a nonprofit bookstore that publishes artists’ books on Tenth Avenue in West Chelsea. What Jenkin, along with employees of galleries and businesses all over Chelsea, did not expect was the six-foot wall of water that surged over the banks of the Hudson. In the forty-eight hours following the storm, the hundreds of galleries located in this ten-block radius — the largest concentration of art galleries in the world — found themselves below the floodwaters of the Hudson River. A low-lying area in Evacuation Zone A, Chelsea had never experienced this kind of flooding, and many art galleries on first and basement floors sustained significant damage to their collections.
Those elevated palettes were not enough to stop the floodwaters from ruining almost all of the books in the storage room of Printed Matter, which estimates it has experienced over $200,000 in damage. Moreover, this damage occurred in the basement, where the bookstore keeps most of its own inventory, the for-profit books the store publishes in order to support its artists’ publications, which do not bring in revenue. Without this critical supply of income, the bookstore found itself lacking its sustaining inventory, with no money to print new publications to replace the old.
Businesses all across West Chelsea have spent the two weeks since the hurricane removing their art from waterlogged storage rooms, elevating, cleaning, and starting to rebuild. Estimated losses run in the tens of millions, and organizations like the online auction site Paddle 8 are hosting fundraising events to help the struggling galleries recover.
But many of these collections are covered by art insurance, Jenkin explains, something which Printed Matter does not have. Stripped of their source of income, facing thousands of dollars in archive-restoration fees, and without the base of customers brought in by the now-closed galleries surrounding them, Printed Matter faced a bleak reality. Pictures of their sodden wares laid out on the street littered their website and social media platforms, mimicking in print the damage many galleries saw to their paintings and sculpture. The bookstore, it seemed, had little recourse, and few places to turn to rebuild its supply.
Then something remarkable happened. People walking down Tenth Avenue stopped in and helped the owners move books out onto the street. Fans of the bookstore on Facebook saw photographs of the damage and came to lend a hand, some walking across the bridges from Brooklyn in the days before the subways reopened. Printed Matter put a donations link on their website front page, and received a number of private contributions. Strangers came in through the doors and asked what they could do to help. Through social media, web campaigns, and what Jenkin calls a “fantastic showing of support,” Printed Matter has been able to raise enough money to reopen, and is now on track to develop new publications.
Though Jenkin stresses that the bookstore is still behind financially, and urges concerned parties to visit their website and donate, the executive director is making plans to move forward in the face of this physical and financial devastation. The story of this bookstore, which calls its publications “artwork for the page,” is both akin to that of many galleries in Chelsea following the storm, and uniquely its own. In a world popularized by the exclusivity of its objects and the wealth of its auctions, art is rarely conceived in purely physical terms. We think of art, both on walls and printed in books, as immortal, not susceptible to water damage and wind. We do not envision the objects we adore lying in sodden piles on concrete sidewalks.
The devastation of Sandy brought a stark reality to bear, and businesses such as Printed Matter have been struggling in the weeks since to begin again, restore their collections, and help bring beauty back to the grey pavement of Tenth Avenue.