Hello, and welcome to Ask a Bookseller, in which we at Turnaround ask a bunch of questions to various booksellers. Next up we have Allison from The Fruitmarket Gallery Bookshop in Edinburgh, which is not only a bookshop but a gallery too. Dreamy! Allison has some super interesting things to say about books, art, cookery and fashion. Also features Benedict Cumberbatch…
What do you get up to during a normal day at work?
The bookshop doubles as the front of the gallery so I do both front of house and bookshop manager things. I spend tons of time with spreadsheets, returns, events and merchandising. When I’m not buried in administrative work, I’m looking for new things and collaborations for the shop, which is one of my favourite parts of the job. The neatest part of my job though is all of the groovy artists, curators, historians, and critics who come through our doors. I spoke with Tracy Emin about her ruffly top, Cornelia Parker about Texas and Benedict Cumberbatch* about Werner Herzog. I mainly get to talk to art students about art theory though. Which I love. Students are always so interested and passionate about their subject. I’m down with anybody who’s pumped about books.
*I’ve picked up the names I dropped and swept them here. Benedict Cumberbatch also said he was ‘a fan of my work’ in the bookshop. Benedict Cumberbatch is my fan. I have one fan.
What are you reading right now?
Mieke Bal’s Endless Andness: The Politics of Abstraction According to Ann Veronica Janssens. I bought this in as an exhibition text for our last winter show, Another Minimalism: Art After California Light and Space, and also because I have such a massive academic crush on Mieke Bal. She did a talk for us for our Stan Douglas exhibition in 2014. She is such a badass. She showed up wearing a floor length fur coat and a giant necklace; which in my book is sartorial brilliance. She’s also massively prolific.
Endless Andness examines the work of Ann Veronica Janssens who works largely in experiential light installations. We showed her ‘Yellow Rose’ which is comprised of yellow lights and fog. The combination of the two creates a warm yellow burst of light that floats in the middle of the room. Mieke Bal surveys Janssen’s practice through a sort of x-ray lens but in a really subtle and beautiful way. Her approachable eloquence deliciously explores how the fragile materiality of installation art enables those who live in the ‘perpetually lost and migratory condition that characterises contemporary experience’ to lose themselves and ‘come home’. Bal essentially theorises that experiential art is a big, fat reality check. Badass.
Name three books on your reading list?
CCCP Cook Book: The Stories of Soviet Cuisine by Olga & Pavel Syutkin – One of our Information Assistants grew up in Bulgaria and she leafed through this book with nostalgia. I am so fascinated with what it was like to grow up in a Soviet country. I love reading cookery books as well. It looks like it is part cook book, part social history. Plus it is a very handsome tome.
Slavoj Zizek’s Trouble In Paradise – I try to pepper my reading list with impenetrable, mind melting philosophy. My husband is a philosopher and maths wiz and he’s really good at debating. I guess I’m mainly hoping to hone my debating skills by keeping up with contemporary philosophers.
The Moth – I love the way you can consume a short story and let it become your universe as you read it. Short stories are so often intense and packed tightly with imagery and detail. I’ve always read them like paintings, trying to pick apart the symbolism and find references and allusions. The Moth is an organisation that invites people to tell their true stories out loud. They then select the best ones and help the owner of the story transcribe their experience into a persuasive and concise piece of writing. I have heard so many good things about this book and I have sold so many of them.
What is the one book you wish you could sell to everyone who walks in your shop?
The attractive wax paper wrapped Phaidon edition of E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art. I’m a bookseller with the heart of an Art Historian. So even though I run a Contemporary Art resource bookshop, I push history. I think Art history should be approachable, readable, and addictive. Gombrich makes the history of art all of these things without underestimating his reader. Gombrich also had a huge hand in the Warburg institute for quite some time which is quite possibly one of the most wonderful libraries in the world.
Do you have a favourite publisher? If so, why are they your favourite?
Since I became a mum, I have become infatuated with beautiful children’s books. Wide Eyed Editions and Tara Press have to be my two favourite children’s publishers right now. Wide Eyed Eyed Editions do a series illustrated by Aino-Maija Metsola, an artist largely known for her work for Finnish design house Marimekko. Tara Press is a small, independent publisher based in Chennai, South India that do the most exquisite affordable hand-printed books in numbered batches. They are also the best smelling books I have ever encountered. We just did an event with Gita and Arun Wolf. Gita is the author of quite a few of Tara’s titles. Her warmth and enthusiasm for Tara Press’ work with regional and traditional artists of India is contagious.
What is your current favourite Turnaround book and why? (feel free to name more than one!)
I was a really big fan of What my Daughter Wore by Jennifer Williams when it first came out. I love William’s illustrations and the way she elevates the naïve and sweet sartorial adventures of her daughter and daughter’s friends. It made me think about when I was a tween in Los Angeles in the early 00’s and what I thought was the coolest. I totally owned an Olive green holographic mini backpack, brown glittery jelly shoes and rocked green stripes with matching monotone plaid. These girls are actually cool though. I’m also loving Ambrosia magazine. I thought it was hilarious that it was called Ambrosia, which is a really gross canned fruit and marshmallow fluff concoction often served at WASPy gatherings in America, but then I realised they were using it in a classy Classics context, as in ‘food of the gods’. Which says more about me than them really… It is well edited and a piece of affordable luxury worthy of any foody’s attention.
What kind of books would you like to see more of, and what kind do you wish publishers would stop publishing?
Readable cookery books are my guilty pleasure. I pour over cook books like novels. I would love to see more books like Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking where you feel like you are hanging out in the kitchen with her and pouring butter and wine on everything. I guess I would like to see less books that make girls feel like their purpose is to be in a relationship or be pretty. There are so many other things girls can do like wear floor length fur coats and be Dutch Art theorists. Mieke Bal, will you be my best friend?
What’s the weirdest book-question you’ve ever been asked by a customer at work?
There are so many, but I think the most memorable was the super drunk man who tied his dog to the security barrier when I worked at Blackwell’s and then told me he was looking for the ‘new paperback by Tesla’.
And finally… favourite book jacket OF ALL TIME?
A Giant Little Golden Book: Fish. I found this in my grandmother’s house in a closet. She has a whole unfinished top floor in her enormous Victorian home in Haddonfield, New Jersey. She has a ton of old records, clothes, paintings, books and even a totem pole stored up there. I used to spend a lot of time exploring them when I would visit her when I was little. I rarely want to harm books, but I have been tempted on more than one occasion to cut up this book and frame the pages. It is a very pretty book. Plus, fish are groovy.
Thanks so much Allison!
If you’re in Edinburgh be sure to visit The Fruitmarket Gallery Bookshop and talk to Allison about books and art! If you’re not in Edinburgh, then head over and follow them on Twitter!
More info on Allison’s favourite Turnaround books:
What My Daughter Wore by Jennifer Williams (powerHouse, 150pp, paperback, £17.699, 9781576877265)
Ambrosia Magazine (Digital Ventures, paperback, £13.99, Volume 1: Baja, Mexico: 9780986296239, Volume 2: Denmark: 9780986296246)
We are still on the hunt for more booksellers to take part in this feature. So if you are a bookseller who would like to answer some of our questions, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.