As with most facets of art in New York City, there are so many art bookstores — and there’s so little time to visit them all. With bookstores linked to galleries, galleries linked to bookstores, and everything in between, a refreshingly wide range of configurations turn the art book form into an invitation to fall down informational rabbit holes and seek out the unknown. I set out in search of a starting point to delve into this lattice of shops and found myself enchanted by the knowledge and curiosity of the city’s art bookstore teams, who’ve each had to expand and change to find their foothold in an unpredictable industry. Visiting five art bookstores across Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, I learned more about the process of growing their business, the art books and zines that inspire them, some customer favorites, and got a few summer reading recommendations, too.
Tucked away around the corner from the New Museum, a haven brims with zines, photo books, and printed materials that flexibly stretch the limits of genre without fitting into a single category. Director Shisi Huang launched the project in San Francisco with collaborators Xiao Yong and Nanxi Zhou in 2016 before settling into the current location in 2019, with Yong and Zhou opening another outpost in Beijing. Huang, herself an artist, told me that she sees Bungee Space as an opportunity to “create a constellation of everything” — passersby will often stop in for a coffee and soon find themselves leafing through hand-picked publications by artist collectives, a zany clothing selection, and affordable art prints available for purchase. The combined bookstore, coffee shop, exhibition corner, and retail clothing structure invites visitors to explore freely and allows the store, which has no outside financial backing, to be run in a healthy, sustainable way.
All of the carefully selected books are rooted in Huang’s keen interest in image studies as a portal into other topics. Four Times Through the Labyrinth (Spector Books, 2021) stands out as a longtime customer favorite, providing a deep dive into the labyrinth form through the transcripts from lectures given in 2013 in Leipzig, Germany — including but not limited to the discombobulating maze that is Ikea. Highlighted on Bungee Space’s small publication spotlight table during my visit was Revue Faire, running essays, how-tos, and experimental works related to graphic design on a biweekly basis during the academic year. Huang also recommended Una Piscina Geopolítica, which documents research and performance by artists Diego Abellán and Joaquín Lucas on the insidious abundance of swimming pools across Spain, given worsening water scarcity, for a thoughtful summer read. Though Bungee Space is currently out of copies, visitors can read this and other titles at the mini library corner, where a shelf and chairs make a home for visitors browsing sold-out titles.
Bungee Space (3ssstudios.com)
13 Stanton Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan
At Williamsburg’s Miriam Gallery, the boundary between artworks and books blurs in a welcoming two-room space, where founding duo Jaclyn Dooner and Simón Ramirez attentively curate exhibitions and book selections that palpably complement one another. They opened in 2019 with an express interest in interrogating the book as a form. Dooner said they rarely work with distributors and instead focus on stocking their store in direct collaboration with artists. “We actually had a hard time finding artists’ books,” she said. “When we first started, we saw a huge hole.” Now, they’ve built up a community of zinemakers, small publishers, artists, and collectives across the country, as well as internationally, with a growing selection of works in Spanish and Latin American artist books from presses like Calipso in Colombia and Gold Rain in Mexico.
This same spirit of partnership and interconnection suffuses their recent exhibition catalogue, Six Good Ways To…, a box containing one printed item per artwork by collective Hábitos Actuales. The catalogue plays on the seemingly endless stream of online tutorials quantifying the exact number of ways to do just about anything. I was especially intrigued by an accordion fold-out of blue-tinted photos and a usable carbon-copy paper notepad. A table in the front room awash with artist’s books and titles of all sizes houses other unusual printed materials, with a bent toward limited editions and carefully constructed zines. Dooner pointed out a number of zines by small press GenderFail, including Dana Kopel’s dispatches from museum union organizing and advice for art workers in Against Artsploitation: Unionizing the New Museum (Inga, 2022). It is a particularly pertinent read during a time when museum and other arts workers are organizing simply for livable pay and conditions.
319 Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Hidden below street level on Noho’s Bond Street, I nearly passed by Dashwood Books’s snug storefront. Pine-colored shelves encase a trove of art book gems that founder David Strettel and manager Miwa Susuda summoned from nooks and piles when I inquired about the titles that stand out to them. It came as no surprise, then, when Strettel noted that Dashwood will soon mark 18 years of “specializing in finding what people want,” though he admitted that the only real pattern of what people want is that “there is no pattern” — which is part of the fun. His grounding interest in photography guides the store’s focus, and they ventured into publishing books in collaboration with artists around 2008. In-store events held in the cozy back area launch each artist zine, published on a roughly monthly basis. Dashwood’s currently in the midst of planning later 2023 publications featuring artists like photographer Daidō Moriyama and Stefan Marx, whose primary passion lies in sketching airplanes.
Among Dashwood’s growing collection are rare titles that Strettel brings back from his visits to Japan, some stashed in cabinets set into the walls. Artist Shinro Ohtake’s The Copper Period: Etchings 1978–2022 arrived just before Christmas and has drawn a steady stream of readers since then, some of whom Strettel guesses weren’t previously acquainted with his work. “I like the idea of introducing customers to people who they’re not familiar with,” he added while leafing through its pages. “You sort of see the same people again and again if you don’t leave New York.” Another visually delightful book is The Drawer, a flatfile-sized compilation of curator and critic Vince Aletti’s collages and patchworks of the art ephemera, newspapers, photos, and scraps he’s collected since the 1970s. And the loyal subway-goer in me gravitated toward the recently published 8-Ball Almanac with energetic snapshots narrating the titular art collective’s projects, including a previous pop-up at Williamsburg’s Lorimer subway station called “The Newsstand,” a reimagining of its namesake into a hub for selling clothes and books, holding art shows, and fostering community during the buzz of daily commutes.
Dashwood Books (dashwoodbooks.com)
33 Bond Street, Noho, Manhattan
“Snowball” is the verb director Matthew Shuster used to describe Karma’s growth from what began as a small West Village storefront founded by Brendan Dugan for publishing small volumes and showing artists’ work into its current form, with three galleries and a bookstore in NYC, plus a new LA gallery with its own bookstore. Still, he clarified, “The bookstore is a huge part of our DNA,” noting that Dashwood Books’s David Strettel was supportive during the process of setting up the shop. He showed me around the store’s current location in a sunny room in the East Village, carrying just a fraction of the artist books and catalogues Karma has produced over the years and an evolving selection of titles on art in the broadest sense of the word. It’s on a quieter street, so most customers are in-the-know interior designers, photographers, actors, artists, and creatives of all types. While most of these customers know exactly what they’re looking for when they arrive, the store delights in welcoming visitors who just wander in with no plans or clear course of action. “This can be a little intimidating for people,” Schuster said. “I love having people who are just curious.” And for those with open minds, Karma offers plenty of chances to connect with new subjects and ideas.
Shuster pointed out a few pocket reads for summer, like Hilton Als’s 2022 memoir My Pinup, which includes odes to pop icon Prince, musings on queer nightlife, and reflections on the AIDS epidemic. Karma’s charming series of artist facsimiles especially captured my imagination: One collection of exact reproductions of Lee Lozano’s lined memo notebooks appear as artifacts of the artist’s thoughts, replicating scribbled notes and plans in meticulous detail, down to ink blobs bleeding through the paper. The intimate collections are a touching way to bring the process of creation to life and honor the everyday artistic ephemera that might otherwise be regarded as disposable.
Karma Bookstore (bookstore.karmakarma.org)
136 East 3rd Street, East Village, Manhattan
You’d never suspect that Artbook, sprawling across a former painting gallery in Queens’s MoMA PS1 museum, started out as a single cart parked in one of the museum’s hallways. The spacious collection of books of all kinds is now lined with shelves, tables, and bookstands custom designed and built by the staff to grant the space the adaptability required for art bookstores today. Shelves can be adjusted to fit larger books, which art publications often are, and tables on wheels whirl away to make space for launches and readings. Earlier this year, Artbook also began hosting independent publishers for month-long book residencies on one of their bookcases toward the entrance. May brought Duke University Press’s selections into the space, following Inventory Press in April and Ugly Duckling Presse in March. An independent store run by Distributed Art Publishers, Artbook contains a wide swath of titles to match its equally varied customer base. Bookstore Director Cheeyeon Park pointed out that many PS1-goers wander into the store while visiting the museum, so the team has intentionally built up an abundance of options, from a glass case housing out-of-print rare books to children’s titles to exhibition catalogues to a shelf entirely dedicated to that ubiquitous yet undersung medium, paper. Notably, rather than being tied to a museum ticket, entrance to the bookstore is always free.
Park noted a number of her favorite titles and others that tend to attract readers, including artist Wendy Red Star’s newest book, Bíilukaa, and Ruben Pater’s Caps Lock: How Capitalism Took Hold of Graphic Design, and How to Escape From It. Artist Jennifer West’s consideration of film as a material unfolds in her monograph Media Archaeology, while I Seem to Live: The New York Diaries, 1950–1969: Volume 1 chronicles filmmaker Jonas Mekas’s personal notes and writings. And I couldn’t resist another form of the moving image, the store’s small but mighty collection of flipbooks featuring playful bite-sized reads, from R. Crumb’s Stoned Again! (too real) to Gothic Scream, an equally trippy transformation of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” into Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”