What Bookstores Buy: Ampersand in Portland
July 29, 2013
Courtesy of Ampersand
With so many photo books being published, how can you make sure yours stands out? For advice, we asked the book buyers at five independent bookstores across the country how they decide which books they will stock on their shelves. They explain how and when they buy new titles, how they evaluate photographers’ self-published books and which photo books have proven popular with their unique clientele. Their insights provide a portrait of today’s independent bookstore market. The first independent bookstore we are highlighting is Ampersand in Portland, Oregon.
When Myles Haselhorst established Ampersand gallery and bookstore in Portland, Oregon, he had several years as a private dealer of vintage photographs and antiquarian and rare books under his belt. That experience, and his relationships with collectors, he says, gave him the confidence to open a storefront. Yet from the beginning he considered the space—and the business—an experiment. “If somebody wanted to open a business to earn a living they probably wouldn’t think of opening a bookstore,” he admits.
Five years into the experiment, Ampersand has become a destination for photographers, photo-book collectors and Portland’s creative community. Portland is home to a large network of graphic design and advertising professionals, and “dozens of agencies,” Haselhorst notes. Some are book collectors, but many come to Ampersand looking for inspiration and are “adventurous in what they’re looking at and looking for.”
In contrast to larger booksellers like Powell’s, a general-interest bookstore in Portland, Ampersand is built to encourage exploration and discovery, Haselhorst says. “People who go to Powell’s and shop, they may know exactly what they want, so if the book is spine out they’re going to go down the stacks and they’re going to find it alphabetically … The way we have our space set up, it’s more like a gallery for books.” Many of the titles are placed face-out, and while there is a small alphabetical section, the books aren’t for the most part arranged systematically. “I want people to pause and browse, and if everything is laid out systematically and they go directly to what they want then that chance for discovery is probably eliminated.”
When selecting books to stock, Haselhorst, who runs the shop with his wife, Carey, says he weighs the quality of a book’s design and materials in addition to evaluating the impact of the images. “Because photography books tend to be the final statement in an artist’s working process, they tend to be works of art in and of themselves,” Haselhorst notes. “A monograph or a museum catalogue or something like that, it’s important in terms of art history and culture, and I champion and sell those just as much, but I consider them to be different things.”
Photo-book buyers are “invested in the idea of the book and book design as much as they are in the photographs that are contained in a book,” Haselhorst explains.
The books that are displayed face-out in the store are often what Haselhorst is “into” at the time, “or they may be the most recent acquisitions.” But, he says, “If something is in the store it means that we really believe in it. I don’t prioritize in that sense.”
With certain publishers, like Nazraeli and Twin Palms and, more recently, MACK, “You have faith in what they’re going to produce,” Haselhorst says. Some popular recent titles include Another Language by Mårten Lange (MACK), Uncle Charlie by Marc Asnin (Contrasto), Illuminance by Rinko Kawauchi (Aperture) and Mike Brodie’s A Period of Juvenile Prosperity (Twin Palms).
Ampersand buys through distributors like D.A.P. and the Netherlands-based company Idea Books, and also directly from smaller publishers. Haselhorst tends to be conservative, buying between three and six copies of a given book.
More and more, Haselhorst is being approached by self-publishers, which adds to the challenge of keeping up with the market. Around 2010 he noted an increase in the number of books being produced by publishers and individuals. “It’s really hard to know what to commit to,” Haselhorst says.
Ordering books from self-publishers means taking a risk on the quality of the design and printing. And, Haselhorst notes, self-publishers often don’t even consider how their work will look in a bookstore when they’re making a book. “People are doing all these books but then you ask them about bookstores and they say, ‘I never go in bookstores,’” Haselhorst notes. “A lot of people who are making books don’t even think of them being deposited in bookstores. Or they don’t even put themselves in the shoes of a collector.”
With small-run, self-published books, Haselhorst says, “Internet distribution tends to be the most lucrative and easiest way for them to be distributed. And so the collector, the very serious collectors that I would potentially be able to sell the books to, they probably already purchased them directly from the artist.”
Haselhorst says Ampersand does consign rare books, but the ratio of time and effort to money earned makes it difficult to consign ’zines or other lessexpensive publications.
While the abundance of online retailers “shows that there’s health in the market,” Haselhorst says, “as a buyer in a bookstore I tend to just try to focus on my local community more than I do in selling to collectors in other parts of the country or the world.” Haselhorst believes Ampersand is “a place were you can go in and be a part of a community,” and engage in dialogue about publications or exhibitions or the vintage photographs Ampersand offers. “Everybody seems to be lamenting the fact that small businesses are disappearing,” he says. “But when people have that sort of feeling or make that statement they need to selfassess and figure out when was the last time they supported a small business.”
When he opened Ampersand, Haselhorst wanted “an environment where [photography and design books] could be in dialogue with exhibitions, and then also the ephemera and vintage photography that we buy and sell.” He also believed in “being part of this community where you commodify things that essentially don’t have any value,” a concept espoused in an essay called “Dealing” by the art dealer and critic Dave Hickey, which Haselhorst read as an undergraduate.
“Obviously I want to make money and pay my mortgage,” Haselhorst explains. But, he adds, the “fun” part of the business is “if you find something that you think is interesting and nobody really knows about it, and you’re able to create a narrative around it to where you’re able to commodify it … That money transaction validates your belief in that thing, it validates your taste and it validates a decision that you’ve made.”
Taking this idea of creating a market for an art object a step further, Haselhorst began a publishing program for Ampersand and has published several books in small editions. “It satiated that desire for me to experiment with an idea and just see how people react,” Haselhorst says of publishing. “When it’s successful it’s really fun. And then when it’s not it’s equally interesting, because you step back and wonder why.”
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