On a Tuesday evening during a frigid, foggy August, I went across town to Adobe Books in the Mission District of San Francisco. That night, local fiction writers were reading works in progress as part of the festivities attached to Wouldn’t You Like To?, an installation in the shop’s backroom gallery by the artist Jason Houck. An engineer by training, with a day job at California’s public utilities commission, Houck had hung 70 photographic prints of shelves from the Adobe Books salesroom, stacked into ten lifesize bookcases along the wall of wide, white room. The images were a record of the store as it existed on June 6, 2016, all of it in cyanotype, a print process that renders everything in crisp blued-out detail.
The first thing I did while scanning Houck’s shelves was look for books I’d read. Soon, a couple joined me, sighing and pointing at certain spines. I picked out triptychs that Houck had captured: Sartre and Sedaris and Self; Dickens and Didion and Dillard. Below some titles were Post-Its written by passionate clerks. “Bukowski’s very favorite souce of literary inspiration,” read one underneath Céline.
In the front room, a microphone had been set up in front of the “A” shelf of the fiction section. Before the reading started, Houck took the stage to talk about the project. “I was inspired by the bookshelf itself,” he told us, “and also by how I feel in bookshops, how they’re places of refuge; they can invite me to think about all the places I don’t know and would like to know, and let me envision the person I want to be and provide avenues to become that person.”
I scanned the shelves around the shop. There were William Faulkner’s collected stories, local hero Dave Eggers’s The Circle, and a first edition of Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle. Music critic Sarah Bardeen read a paean to bookshops, where, she wrote, we don’t want easy Amazon-style clicking, but “the experience of being a literary flaneur, reaching out less with our intellect and intention than with our feelings. Does this book open up the possiblities of life? Does this title speak to something unacknowledged and hungry inside you? Does it feel cool and smooth in your hands?"
Adobe Books opened at its original location, near 16th and Valencia, in 1989. The store remained there for more than twenty years, under the ownership of Andrew McKinley, until a new landlord raised the rent. In 2012, as McKinley fought to keep his lease, a group calling itself Friends of Adobe started to plan the store’s future. They put up a crowdfunding page and raised enough money to relocate to a smaller location, on 24th near Folsom. In July 2013, Adobe Books reopened as a cooperative run almost exclusively by volunteers.
When he was invited to exhibit in the new shop’s gallery, Houck wanted to do something that honored the Adobe’s past and present. Cyanotype uses an iron-heavy chemical solution that, when exposed to UV light, turns a deep Prussian blue. (Architectural blueprints were originally printed using the same process.) Houck coated absorptive paper with this solution and laid over it a negative sized to the same dimensions of Adobe’s bookshelves. When he shone light on it, what was ferric turned ferrous, and the spines slowly materialized in blue and white.
“It results in a product that feels like an object rather than a photograph or a digital image,” Houck told me after the reading, standing before his shelves. “You remove the color and different things pop. You can read the fonts better. It’s easier for me to scan this than the actual books in there.”
Bookshelves, I said, make me feel lazy. That Post-it reminded me I needed to read Céline. They also helped me understand Houck’s title: Wouldn’t You Like To? I would, historically. I like to think that I could buy the right books and put them in the right order and finally be the person of my dreams. What was so wonderful about Houck’s installation was how it turned the books into ghosts of themselves, spooky and taunting. I’ll never get around to reading even half of the books Houck captured, but his prints, like the bookstore itself, will survive as totems of a well-lived life.
It’s not mandatory to bring a bottle of whiskey to Brazenhead Books, the unmarked bookshop hidden in a nondescript walkup on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, but failing to do so could be considered bad form. That, however, is as far as formalities extend. Michael Seidenberg has been running Brazenhead out of his former apartment for decades, and though it’s no longer his home, the space retains that intimacy.
One day my husband sent flowers: blue hydrangeas studded with thistle and greenery. I took pictures of the flowers, then later did a few studies of them on paper.