Monday, March 2, 2009

Shelf Life by Allison Arieff of the New Tork Times

I felt so fortunate to attend a special presentation the other night: William Stout, owner of the eponymous architecture and design bookstore in San Francisco, had been invited to talk about his favorite books at Linden Tree, a casual salon of sorts that aims to foster the design community in the city.

Stores like Stout’s (not to mention people like Stout!) are a rare breed these days: there are two floors bursting with over 20,000 books on everything from the sustainable houses of Australian architect Glenn Murcutt to Czech graphic designer Vitezslav Nezval’s “Alphabet” from 1926 to the last sketchbook of Jackson Pollock to William Wegman’s whimsical “Dogs on Rocks.” Some books are shelved in an orderly fashion, others are piled high, begging for the serendipity of accidental discovery.

Stout began with his favorite quote from Balzac: “I seldom go out but when I feel myself flagging I go and cheer myself up in Pere Lachaise … while seeking out the dead I see nothing but the living.”

It was evident that, surrounded by these volumes — some slim, some massive, some lush with color photography, some filled with impenetrable academic jargon — Stout felt inspired, in love, in awe, much as Balzac did wandering past the tombstones in that Parisian graveyard.

Stout often chose his favorites based not just on subject matter or author but because of his relationship to its author or subject, or the way the book was acquired, or the paper used in printing it. He showed a new book on architect Eero Saarinen, featuring behind-the-scenes images of the work that went into creations like the T.W.A. terminal at Kennedy International Airport. Below is the most recent title that William Stout Publishers, which publishes architectural monographs and other titles, has produced.

He lovingly presented one of his many rare first edition titles on the French master Le Corbusier.

He spoke about one of his current projects, a book on a man with whom he shares both a name and obsession: William Bushnell Stout, the little-known visionary inventor of fantastic flying machines (and trains, and automobiles, and homes, few of which ever found their way into production but all of which are fascinating). I discovered the ingenious collapsible house designed by W.B. Stout while researching the history of prefabricated housing; I was thrilled to learn that our William Stout had an archive of the other Stout’s work.

Stout is a collector in the best sense of the word. Though he joked that he began acquiring books when he realized he’d never have a 401k, it is probably more accurate to say that Stout is in complete thrall of the smell of ink, the feel of paper, the intellectual and physical heft of the literary object, the near-indiscernible sound of the turning of pages.

An international, multi-generational architecture and design community has for decades put its trust and faith in Stout. He spoke of the widows of great architects making surreptitious visits to his store, and then later announcing themselves and donating valuable archives. Discoverers of caches of lost photographs or portfolios of drawings deliver them to Stout, eager for him and his team (because Stout also produces and publishes books) to transform them into a lasting document.

There was a sort of metaphorical turning of pages here because all that Stout champions and adores seems very much on the wane. As someone who has written and collaborated on the making of several books, I am all too aware that the aspects Stout discussed as if talking about a favorite child — obscure topics, exquisite papers, artisanal printing and binding, architectural drawings rendered painstakingly by hand (not computer), hand-to-hand book-selling — are disappearing from bookmaking. The experience of immersion and discovery that his store allows (one reviewer has written, “if you come here with an architect, abandon all other plans for the day”) is all but vanishing.

I love the tangents an afternoon spent searching the Internet can generate: a search for this leads to a blog on that which might lead to a book I’d not heard of or a film I want to see. But I realize as well that it’s contributing to a sort of collective ADD that makes ambling through aisles of a place like Stout Books feel that much more special, requiring an altogether different commitment of time, care and attention.

Like a photo album, diary or record collection, these books constitute a sort of life history. Single volumes or groups of volumes allow me to recall various periods of my life, from the illustrated copy of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” given to me by my parents when I was in kindergarten, to the likely never-to-be-opened again critical theory texts I’ve saved from grad school by Foucault, Bordieu, Kristeva, et al, to the shelf of vintage trailer volumes acquired while my husband and I were researching our book on Airstreams, to treasured monographs on Bloomsbury, Frank Lloyd Wright and Japanese prints inherited from my art-appraiser mom, many with postcards from her travels tucked inside their jackets. Even “Fluid Electrolyte and Acid Base Disorders,” a medical text written by my father, and dedicated to me and my sister.

There’s a motley yet treasured assortment of old and new, passed down, purchased or borrowed, all reflecting changing tastes, obsessions, influences and stages of life (such as the ever-growing stacks of childrens’ books that now compete for shelf space).

Scanning the bookshelves of others is a favorite pastime, and sitting here canvassing my own makes me fully understand why Stout recently left his San Francisco house to move into a warehouse: he wanted to be surrounded by not just some but all of his books, to feel among the living. As one who has lugged an ever-increasing number of boxes of books from apartment to apartment, city to city, unable to part with nary a one, I feel the same way.

Stout’s presentation was so inspiring yet so bittersweet because his vocation seems entirely of an era that is passing us by. For centuries we’ve looked to libraries as historic evidence of cultured civilizations: will electronic texts fill that bill for future generations? While I’ll admit that I’m intrigued by the Kindle, it will never replace the rows and stacks of books that crowd my house. And when I first settle into my comfy chair ready to read with that new device, I’ll probably feel as if I had a phantom limb — I’ll mourn the absence of my fingers slowly turning the pages.

Allison Arieff - New York Times

Photos by Leslie Williamson

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