On the occasion of their bookstore’s upcoming ten year anniversary, Miles Bellamy and Jonas Kyle, the co-founders and owners of the popular and beloved Spoonbill & Sugartown at 218 Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, stopped by Art International Radio to talk to Publisher Phong Bui about their life and work.
Spoonbill & Sugartown specializes in used, rare, and new books on contemporary art, architecture, and various design fields with an emphasis on imported or hard-to-find books. More importantly, they handpick thousands of good books every month for their voracious clientele. They also stock different, interesting books on poetry, fiction, philosophy, film, theory, and a variety of magazines and journals. The bottom line is this: you never know what you might find once you are there.
Phong Bui (Rail): I think it was for the January/December issue in 2001—the third issue of the Rail—that you wrote an essay called “The Ethics Of Selling Books.”
Jonas Kyle: [Laughter.] Yeah, I did, and I haven’t reread it since.
Rail: You began on the rather skeptical note of how lousy it makes you feel when you sell or lose a book, which is where the “ethics” part comes in—with this difficulty of maintaining good company. You oftentimes have to lose them.
Kyle: [Laughter.] That’s right, you always end up selling what you love. That happened with one book, titled Graphis: Diagrams, published by a graphic firm in Switzerland in 1971, which was mentioned at the end of my article. I ended up selling it for 35 dollars as opposed to a much higher value.
Rail: But, instead of being regretful, you thought it was a poetic incident.
Kyle: That’s true. Although I don’t regret not having that book, I always think about it. It was such a beautiful book, which I thought had all the attributes of the 70s: imaginative, funky, experimental, and so on.
Rail: Were books always your first love?
Kyle: Well, the first thing I can ever remember was saving up six dollars to buy a book about ancient civilization, which was a big purchase for a kid growing up in Berkeley, California in 1969. And, as soon as I got out of high school, I learned German so I could read German books in their original texts. I did the same with Latin and Greek when I was at NYU studying the classics. I just wanted to read the languages as they were. So there wasn’t a real career projection going on there. [Laughter.] I never advanced to the graduate level, but I did get a degree in Ancient Greek, believe it or not.
Rail: How about you, Miles?
miles Bellamy: I went to Bennington College, studied literature, but I dropped out and worked in the college bookstore for a little while. Actually, the first experience in which both Jonas and I worked together was at this bookstore on Livingston Street in Brooklyn. It specialized in Bibles, SAT, and porno. That was in 1982 or 83 and we worked there for two or three months.
Rail: Most of us in the art world knew that your father, Richard Bellamy, was a legendary art dealer who was beloved and respected by so many artists, and whom I only had the privilege in meeting once three years before he died in 1998. So what was your upbringing like?
Miles Bellamy: I was surrounded by walls of books as a child. There were books at my mother’s house and books at my father’s house, not to mention the people whom my parents were hanging out with, mostly artists, writers and dancers. It was certainly a community of very gifted people. The art world in New York was a chaotic, crazy place, and often times frightening for a young child. But ultimately, I don’t regret it. I don’t wish it were otherwise. I have early memories of crawling into Oldenburg’s giant “Soft Hamburger” at the Green Gallery in the fall of 1962, and frequenting his theatrical Store the year before. In any case, looking back now, I sort of took it for granted. I didn’t know how special and momentous that time was. But how does all of that relate to what we all ended up doing in NY now?
Rail: It’s a good question. [Laughter.] What about the Oil & Steel Gallery, which lasted from 1980 till 1998?
Bellamy: It was on 157 Chambers Street originally, which in those days in Tribeca, there weren’t too many galleries except for a couple of non-profits. It was a beautiful space, facing the Hudson River, and most people who had been there will always remember it.
Rail: Oh yeah, the Myron Stout and the David Rabinowitch shows were particularly important to me, partly because I didn’t really know much of their work up to that point.
Bellamy: Michael Heizer, Alfred Leslie, Neil Jenney, Richard Nonas, Manny Farber, and Jo Baer, all had great shows were very memorable as well.
Rail: Did you get to know Stout at all?
Bellamy: Yes, I did. He rarely came to the city so we would visit him in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Rail: What was he like as a person?
Bellamy: Quiet and scholarly, a true gentleman and very obsessed with work and the history of art.
Rail: You were involved or collaborated with Barbara Flynn, who had a gallery on Crosby Street in the early 90s?
Bellamy: Only peripherally, I was often not in the city in those days. It was primarily a relationship between my father and her. She facilitated a lot of the things he wanted to do but couldn’t because he didn’t have a Manhattan space. So they did a series of shows together on Crosby Street. Barbara’s engery was and is boundless and beautiful.
Rail: How did you and Jonas meet?
Bellamy: We both grew up in New York, and we both met in high school, Bronx Science, actually at an LSD transaction I am very proud of. I was the recipient.
Rail: And I know that there was a time you lived in San Francisco for a while. How did the bookstore come about?
Bellamy: I was in California for some years and so was Jonas. I worked in a few bookstores then, came back to New York in the early 90s, and worked for my father and his gallery during the last years of his life. But it was never really what I wanted to do. I wasn’t sure when he passed away, but it just became obvious that one of the most pleasurable things for me was visiting as many bookstores as possible, and buying books all over the country. So the next natural thing to do was to open a bookstore.
Rail: What happened next?
Bellamy: I was once a collector of books, but when I started I was no longer interested in collecting. Initially, we wanted to open our store in Tribeca, but we had no idea if it would fly. We didn’t really have much money to pay for the rent anyway, so we decided to look at Williamsburg, where I was living, and that’s what happened. I sometimes regret we’re not in Manhattan, in Tribeca.
Kyle: Yeah, Miles.
Bellamy: I think about it all the time. [Laughter.]
Rail: Could you, Jonas, tell us a bit about your background?
Kyle: I also wanted to say that my love for books may have come from my mother, Hedi Kyle, who is a book artist, and a bookbinder, as well as a conservator of books. When I was growing up in New York, when I was nine, my mother, sister, and I switched coasts. She worked as a conservator of books at the Bronx Botanical Garden after having studied with this very respected bookbinder named Laura Young. Then she moved to Philadelphia, and took charge of the American Philosophical Society library. It’s one of the oldest libraries in the country where Benjamin Franklin’s books, Lewis and Clark’s archives, and a lot of other scientific books are kept. In fact, she has a three-person show right now in Philadelphia at the University of the Arts’ Rosenwald-Wolf gallery with two European book artists, Irma Boom and Gunnar Kaldewey.
Rail: How did you do in the first few years of the bookstore?
Kyle: Well, we didn’t even know what we were gonna sell except we had this concept of selling used art books. We had no intention of selling new books.
Bellamy: Well, I had my father’s library, and my own personal library, combined with books that I bought from various bookstores, which made up maybe four or five thousand books.
Kyle: And in those days, you could still drive around the country and find very interesting books.
Bellamy: But now, the Internet has changed things.
Kyle: Yeah, it’s not worth going up to Vermont, Ohio, or to any other places anymore. I mean, you would still find them, but they will be all priced according to how the owners find their values on the Internet.
Rail: So when, in fact, did the bookstore begin?
Kyle: In September, 1999.
Rail: In addition to the variety of art books, signed monographs, rare catalogs of past exhibitions, and other related volumes of recent publications, you also organize a lot of poetry and fiction readings, which have included, just to name a few, Paul Auster, Leslie Scalapino, Eileen Myles; artists like Vito Acconci, Lisa Yuskavage; critics and curators such as Jed Perl, Bob Nickas, and so on. When did that program get started?
Bellamy: It was started early on. Actually, Eileen was one of the first readers. She’ll also be doing a reading as part of our ten year anniversary festivities on September 15. Other than that, you know, bookstores do reading events so they can sell their books. Actually, our space is not big enough to fit more than fifty, sixty people, so the ones who come to the readings tend to be our loyal customers.
Rail: How do you feel about the current state of selling and buying books as we see it now?
Kyle: It’s not quite as bad as being a labor of love, or doing missionary work, but it can get pretty close to it. I mean, you can pay yourself, but there’s no extra fat anywhere.
Rail: When I last talked to Dan Simon, the Publisher of Seven Stories Press, which is considered one of the most respectable and successful among independent publishing houses in the country, he said, “the profit incentive has to do with survival and pleasure, rather than money making.” Even though he’s breaking even, he is extremely hopeful and optimistic. He felt that difficult times tend to bring out the best in people. Even the legendary George Braziller, who was so skeptical about the whole topic, at the age of 93, is still rigorously at work.
Bellamy: Well, without the small presses and the independent bookstores that keep on doing what they do, what will we have?
Rail: And where would our culture be?
Bellamy: It would be pretty sad.
Kyle: One of the big problems in the United States is the discounting. It’s always been a little bit of a problem, but it’s grown into this huge problem because of Amazon.com and many other discounters online. Mega bookstores like Barnes and Noble tend to eliminate small neighborhood bookstores like ours. There used to be book club editions. And there were large companies that were selling books that would go for ten dollars for three to their subscribers. Then they would send them out in the mail. But now, it’s automatically thirty percent discount when you buy at Amazon.
Bellamy: It’s amazing that people still buy books from us at all.
Kyle: Right, at full price. They do it, I guess, on impulse, and because they like to see what they’re buying. But a lot of others come into the store with little notebooks and they write down the books, then run home, get on the computer and look up the discounted prices.
Rail: Well, I think it’s the personal contact that’s very important to those who love books. I must say that the only time I buy books from Amazon is when I need multiple copies as reading requirements for my students or young colleagues at the Rail. Otherwise, 85 percent of the books in my library are those I bought from bookstores such as yours. The rest of the 15 percent are those that were either given to me, or I traded for my own artworks. This is excluding books that were sent to the Rail for reviews.
Kyle: I hope there are more people like you. There used to be something called Bibliofind, which was an umbrella organization where all the booksellers could join in and put their books online. People could look up specific titles, authors, publishing dates, numbered editions, hard- or softcovers (there are different kinds of features you can plug in). The book would come up, being sold by, let’s say fifty different booksellers across the country, or even across the world: the same book at different prices. It was bought up by a more ruthless competitor, Abebooks, whose fees were predatory on independent booksellers. Recently, Abebooks got swallowed up by Amazon. So now, if you sell books through Abebooks, you’re working for Amazon. Independence in the book world is on the wane.
Bellamy: We have to make a distinction between the second hand books and the new books. Everything has become a commodity. Almost any book has changed in nature.
Rail: So how would you go about the process of selecting books?
Bellamy: Again, there’re two categories: there are new books and there’re several hundred publishers we have to choose from. But, there are only a handful of really great publishers, including university presses around the country. And then, there’re books coming from overseas, which we have some access to. But then, with the used books, we still depend on the people who sell books. They want to thin out their libraries, or those who want to dispose of their estates. Of course, sometimes we also get random cases where someone just wanted to get rid of the books they’ve just read. But, as a whole, it’s just getting harder and harder to find used books. In any case, the nature of the store is this mixture of the new and the old, which is what makes it more interesting than a bookstore with only one or the other.
Rail: Over the years, has there been a particular customer or personality that has stayed in your memory as the most pleasurable, or the greatest annoyance?
Bellamy: There’s this man named Sergio who is a frequently jailed and esoteric book specialist. Periodically, he would come in and tell us that he needed to sell his books in order to raise money for whatever cause. Then he’d go off to jail for a couple of years and come back, and when he had a little money, he would buy the books back from us. [Laughter.]
Kyle: Then, he claims that he is dying in two weeks and we won’t see him anymore.
Bellamy: The bookstore has become sort of a magnet for people who are living off the sale and repurchase of their books. [Laughter.]
Kyle: When did you get rid of books?
Rail: Only twice to Peter Krauss at Ursus Books, which I really regret and won’t ever do again as long as I live. I’d rather give them to friends or to small bookstores like yours. And I no longer lend out my books, partly because I once read something very funny that Anatole France had said: “Never lend books to those who never return them; but half of the books in my library are those I’ve borrowed from my friends.” [?Laughter.] You know, I used to negotiate between the two differences. I either don’t lend out books, or I don’t borrow books from anyone anymore.
Kyle: I don’t understand that about books. Maybe it’s one of the few things one will actually lend because it’s something to read, especially when it’s small and it’s portable. But, you never get it back. It’d take at least three attempts to get it back.
Rail: Yeah, it’s like softbound breaks friendship and hardbound breaks marriages. Forget it, either way, it’s fatal. At any rate, I remember years ago, you used to hang works of art in the back wall, which you treated as a curatorial exhibit. I thought that was great. What happened to that?
Bellamy: Yeah, we did that with a great Myron Stout painting. We also showed a Peter Young painting, and had a show of Lee Lozano’s small drawings for a couple of months.
Kyle: We also had a selection of Jonas Mekas films that you curated for the window display, which was nice.
Rail: How are you doing with poetry and fiction books?
Bellamy: Since people are not buying art books the way they were five years ago, we’re in fact selling more books of poetry and fiction. Actually, cookbooks and music books have been doing well lately.
Rail: Has there been a certain book that has brought you great sorrow?
Kyle: There’s a signed Jack Kerouac book that I sent to somebody who wanted to see it first before buying it. And then, he said he had misplaced it. It turned out that one of his staff had “accidentally” sold it on eBay.
Bellamy: It was Visions of Cody that came to me by way of Miles Forst, who once owned it.
Rail: He was one of the founders of the Hansa Gallery along with Jan Müller, Jean Follet, Felix Pasilis, Richard Stankiewicz, Jacques Beckwith, and Wolf Kahn.
Bellamy: That’s right. Not to mention the Jack Smith’s beautiful book that we had for a little while.
Kyle: Yeah, that was nice. But, you can’t get attached to these books because they’re going to leave you. Regrets don’t help in this business. [Laughter.]
Bellamy: It’s like a small animal that you don’t want to suffocate; you just want to let it free and let it go wherever it wishes. Similarly, I have this idea that these books should circulate about the world. They should go from one person to the next, and keep going in their journeys, it’s just sort of beautiful, actually.
Rail: You’re right. I think art and books give us great comfort.
Kyle: It is reassuring, that’s true.
Rail: I wonder how Judith Stein has been doing with her biography of your father.
Bellamy: Well, it’s been over ten years, but she’s close to completion.
Rail: About the names of your bookstore: I suspect that “sugartown” is probably taken from Bob Dylan’s song, “Trying to get out of Heaven,” which is from his 1997 album Time out of Mind, but how about Spoonbill?
Bellamy: Well, Dylan took the Sugartown from an old Alabama folk song and as for the Spoonbill, we needed to come up with paperwork to establish the bookstore legally before it actually existed, and thumbing through a bird book the spoonbill fairly leapt out at us.
Kyle: And neither one of us have seen one in the flesh! But I know they live down in Texas.
Bellamy: And they have special sensors in their bills that dig down in the marsh to find food, so we think of ourselves as book spoonbills, somehow culling and finding book essences. [Laughter.]
Rail: That’s nice.
Bellamy: And the reason why the spoonbill is pink like the flamingo’s bill is because of the shrimp it eats.
Rail: In addition to Eileen’s reading, what else do you have in mind for the store’s upcoming ten year anniversary?
Bellamy: We certainly don’t want to do just the traditional reading series, or a party, which is something that people do when they have an anniversary.
Rail: It’s too pedestrian.
Bellamy: Or too commercial; we’re still trying to figure out some other way of going about it.
Kyle: We want a grand gesture, or something that’s unusual.
Bellamy: But, we haven’t been able to come to a conclusion, and it’s quite possible that we will continue not to come to a conclusion until the anniversary is past, which I think would be great and sad at the same time.
Kyle: On November tenth at 10am, for our tenth anniversary, we want everyone—which includes not only the people of Williamsburg and the city of NY, but the people of the US and the world—to contemplate, for ten seconds, a book they’ve read at some point in the last ten years. If we can only figure out how to get everyone to do this simultaneously, we will at least have these ten seconds of quiet, or not necessarily quiet, contemplation on a book. It would be very satisfying.
Rail: That’s a nice idea. Is it possible to create it on the web?
Kyle: Yeah, I think this has to be done with Facebook, MySpace, blogging, emailing or Twitter. There is one other procedure we will be doing. It may not be the elusive grand gesture, but it is a tribute to books, the store, and to our customers. Beginning on Saturday, October 3rd, and ending at closing time Friday, October 9th, we will be taking photographic portraits of customers with the book, or books they purchase. The camera will be set up behind the sales counter. It won’t be furtive and, naturally, anyone can decline the opportunity to have their picture taken. In the end, we expect to garner between a hundred to two-hundred portraits which we’ll assemble into an inexpensive book. Perhaps a large poster as well. So, here’s everyone’s chance to get into the Spoonbill Hall of Fame.