There’s a small, basement level clothing store on Bond St. in NYC called CHCM run by an Indian gentleman named Swetu. You wouldn’t notice it if you weren’t looking for it, and of course it’s one of those NY shops with a cult following. In the corner of his store there is a small carved out section with a curated selection of books, along with some posters and t-shirts, owned and run by Erik Heywood, the owner of Book/Shop. Erik has a special love for all matter of printed material, as reflected in the eclectic collection of items he has for sale. We sat down with Erik in the stockroom of CHCM and dove into the world of books and the people who live for them.
WITH: We love books. We heard that your professional involvement with books started off as a blog about bookshelves?
ERIK HEYWOOD: My background was in design. I started a blog in 2007 called Books At Home that was dedicated to bookshelf design, basically. Back then, the Internet wasn’t quite as aggregated or crowded. It’s not like today when you can have access to every bookshelf ever made thanks to a million social media accounts and websites.
At that time the only discussion about books was that e-books were going to destroy them. For the last 500 years, there’s also been something new that’s going to “destroy books.” And yet, books just keep trucking along. That really interests me.
W: I think a lot of people enjoy them as aesthetic objects, and if you are in a pinch, makeshift tables.
E: The bonds people have with books go beyond the printed words. You can read, but that’s not loving books. Loving books is a different, more beautiful and cool thing that revolves around books being the center of your world. Once I saw that I could do that, I was hooked.
W: What’s the Book/Shop experience supposed to be like in your eyes?
E: I’ve got one poster out there that’s this T.S. Eliot quote from Four Quartets. Most people, if you ask them to read Four Quartets, would be like, “Oh my gosh, homework, whatever.” But I can’t tell you how many people stand in front of that poster almost in tears just reading in silence. They will often call a friend over to do the same.
So for me, it’s about sweetness and light. Life is dark enough, you know what I mean? If you can just walk through the store and have your inner life beautified and enriched in a way that’s related to books, I’m happy. If you buy stuff, I’m ecstatic.
W: What’s it like running a very nontraditional kind of business? There’s really no guarantees in terms of inventory, or of what your audience is going to want to buy.
E: I love this question. I find retail endlessly fascinating. When it’s done right, it’s art meets commerce. It really is a passion-driven thing. Selling rare art objects is a very, very difficult business, made even more difficult by the internet.
Instead of following that model, I thought it would be cooler to do what Marc Jacobs does. His store has very expensive dresses, but it also sells a $5 compact mirror and flip flops that have the same Marc Jacobs logo on them. Everybody can get something. I was very inspired by that model.
For instance, we have a couple of crates filled with $5 books that most other bookstores would probably sell for $15 or $20.
Actually,just to take a beat here, can I tell you a quick story? I don’t want you to get antsy, ’cause I know I talk a lot. Does the name Harry Crosby ring any bells for either of you?
W: No, but Harry Potter does.
E: Harry Crosby was a tall, handsome, young, wealthy American. Kind of crazy. Literally. He came from the Morgan family. This was the robber baron era, so there were no ethics for any of these people, and there was unlimited money. The robber barons raided the world for the most valuable, rarest, earliest, best books. Their libraries were spare-no-expense the best.
When Walter Van Rensselaer Berry died, he left this incredible library. In his will it said, “My good friend Edith Wharton gets the first pass.” So Edith went through and chose the ten books she wanted. She didn’t want to take the rest.
Everything else, thousands and thousands of books, went in crates to Paris and showed up at Harry Crosby’s flat. Crosby has shelves built and has this priceless collection of books put up. He decides after a while, “I left America to get away from all these people. I don’t want this reminder sitting on my walls.”
To get rid of the books he would do this: every day that he left his home, he’d pull one or two of these priceless, sometimes ancient books, pencil in a few cents, whatever, the lowest price you can imagine, and he’d put them in the used book stalls.
E: He did it so that somebody going by that was looking for cheap books would find one of these treasures and not be able to believe what just happened. That inspired me with the $5 bins. I was like, “I want everybody to get something, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to give them something bad. I want them to kind of be wowed. I want them to feel lucky.” And if I didn’t spend much money on it, it’s fine.
Often when I’m out scouting, I can find something for $3 that I know I can sell for $40, and I do. But sometimes if I found it for $2 and I could sell it for $25, I’ll put it in the $5 because I want someone to have that experience. To me, what books do well is they build kind of a beautiful, rich inner life – and sometimes, under the right circumstances, they can be miracles.