February’s Bookshop of the Month takes us to the banks of the River Thames and into one of the capital’s most striking buildings: the Tate Modern. Simon Armstrong, Book Buyer for the Terrace Shop, spoke to us about the research that goes into curating a gallery bookshop, what their bestsellers say about 21st century living and their exciting plans for the rest of 2019…
1. The Terrace Shop is located in London’s iconic Tate Modern. What’s the best thing about your job as Book Buyer for this exciting venue?
We are blessed with a large space for bookselling, and added to that over five million curious people from diverse international backgrounds come through this building every year. This presents an incredible opportunity and platform to present all kinds of art and ideas to people. Our customers are keen to discover and explore and are open to new and complex ideas, which allows us not only to provide resources, information and souvenirs, but also to experiment, take a few risks and importantly: play.
The bookshop is intended to be an oasis of visual culture in what is an increasingly dull, deracinated and dry retail landscape. Naturally, we do everything about Modern and Contemporary Art, interwoven with the gallery programme and collection, but we also tackle what it is to be in the 21st Century, how we arrived here through the 20th, through visual culture and arts, taking in design, fashion, architecture, culture, media and theory. If you want to understand modernism, your place in it, and how you can express what you feel about it, come by.
That’s one way of looking at it, another is through my belief that everyone is an artist, or about to be. We are hoping to turn spectators into creators, which will ultimately mean there are even more good books to read and better art to look at. So you need inspiration to set you off; we have a whole section on that. Then you need to know how to make and present your idea, so we have a huge section on techniques. And so on, all the way through to criticism of the work that inspires you to start anew, back to the beginning. Whatever stage you are at creatively, day one or day ten thousand, we aim to have something that will help you make good stuff.
The best thing about my job is the opportunity to orchestrate an ever changing ecology of over 8000 titles and to get truly extraordinary books in front of people. The best bit of all is when you really connect a book with a person, and set them off on a new creative path.
2. How do the exhibitions held at the gallery, as well as the events and performances hosted by the shop itself, inform your book buying?
We have several exhibitions a year, four or five major ones, plus an ever changing series of room displays and collection displays. There is also the annual Turbine Hall commission, the BMW live series in the Tanks, plus events, screenings and talks all the time. We also have our own themed displays in the shop, a book of the month programme and our own book events programme. So there is always something specific I’m buying books for!
I research each exhibition several months in advance, because we usually have a large extra shop dedicated to each show. I can add up to around 120 titles for each so we can go way beyond a simple ‘book about the artist’ and delve into all the themes and wider context of each show, drawing on any relevant novels, literature, films, music and poetry. What the visitor then arrives at is an extensive range of supporting material which hopefully far surpasses expectation. If they happened to spot an odd detail or reference in one of the paintings they just saw, we try to have a book on that particular thing waiting for them, as if we telepathically read their thoughts. When that happens they buy it instantly.
3. What are your bestselling titles at the moment? Are your customers interested in your fiction range, for example, as much as they are in your exhibition catalogues?
Our top sellers are from all corners of the bookshop: little quirky gift books, children’s picture books, London guides, or a random art theory hit. The greatest thing about bookselling is that even after twenty years of doing it, the unexpected surprises and inexplicable successes keep arriving.
The major publisher industrial complex is riddled with dismal, predicable, copycat formulas, but creativity always triumphs and there are so many incredible books around, bookselling remains dynamic and fascinating.
You can read book sales reports as a diagnosis of society; if so people are more anxious than ever but also increasingly open to new, radical ideas.
The fiction is popular, and important. I understand the best way to reach people is through stories rather than facts, which is a problematic truth, but fiction works. I’m a bit preoccupied at the moment with a pet theory about the mental health crisis caused by the ‘narrativisation’ of everyday life, but it’s one for the pub. Maybe I’ll write a book on it sometime and hide it in a drawer.
4. Your January Book of the Month was Repeater’s The Worst is Yet To Come. What is your February Book of the Month and how do you go about choosing?
I chose Peter Fleming’s superb book for Repeater as an antithesis to the usual January ‘New Year-New-Me” diet fad routine. I thought it was funny to flip that, be a little curmudgeonly and do that thing of jokingly introducing serious ideas. The book is great though. Things are evidently going to get worse so it’s wiser to prepare for that than to shed a few pounds. I wasn’t at all sure if customers would appreciate this choice, until we sold fifty copies in the first week of January!
February’s is a book called the Seven Keys To Modern Art which explains simple ways to look and appreciate art that is, let’s be honest, not exactly straightforward to access and often alienating and unsettling. It’s very worthwhile to break through these obstacles, so I think it’s an important and helpful book. March is the brilliant reissued surrealist novel Chasm by Dorothea Tanning. Her exhibition is opening at Tate Modern at the end of February and Virago Women’s Press kindly agreed to bring Tanning’s novel back to life for it.
I choose the book of the month based on what I think is useful, good, interesting or relevant to the present moment in relation to the gallery and its visitors. It’s the polar opposite of the WH Smith’s paid-for-bestsellers thing. The greatest work of fiction on display in the WH Smiths ‘bestseller’ chart is the chart itself.
5. And finally, do you have any exciting plans for the shop that you’d like to share with us?
We’re always hatching plans and schemes, new angles and collaborations of some sort. We’re hoping to do something fun and dramatic to support the Olafur Eliasson exhibition later in the year. I’ve been helping arrange a compilation album for the Keith Haring show in Liverpool with Soul Jazz Records which I’m really excited about. We’re also working on a music selection, some beautifully packaged vinyl treats. I want to do more with indie presses, zines and DIY counter-cultural material. There is an increasing demand and need to create an outlet and space for a new generation of emerging publishers. There’s an extraordinary poetry scene bubbling up that needs celebrating too. There’s a lot of creative energy in the air out there and we’re trying to harness it all and channel it through the shop.