As a gallery bookshop, we occupy a unique position. Customers often tell me they find the bookshop more interesting than the exhibitions, but our role here is very much secondary.
The art is first and foremost the reason why people visit, so here in the shop we aim to offer a worthwhile extension of their experience in the gallery. Being inside an institution is what makes a gallery bookshop so different from a high street bookshop. Fortunately, we have over 5 million people coming into this building each year. This gives us a lot more flexibility to experiment and try new and challenging things that might not be viable in high street bookshops, as the commercial demands and customer expectations are very different. So the huge number of people who come through our doors gives us a massive amount of freedom in many ways but also a lot of specifics. We build from that. The more unique and interesting we can make the shop, the more people like it, so it snowballs.
Our customers cover a huge range. Roughly I’d say it’s split 50:50 between international tourists and domestic visitors, such as art students, Londoners and art aficionados. We have regular customers and also lots of Tate members who come frequently, visiting every exhibition. We have people who only come once in their lives, and people who consider themselves regulars but really only visit every two or three years. That’s a typical London conceit I think. I think I’m a regular if I go somewhere twice in a decade!
The make-up of our customer base has big implications for the book range. We have a core customer base of really serious art aficionados, and people who have genuinely never been to an art gallery before. Most customers would expect our stock to be at the forefront of what’s happening in contemporary art today, which it is, but some of our other customers would be totally turned off if that’s all we had in the shop. I have to find books that satisfy everyone right across the spectrum of needs, knowledge and tastes, but without compromising on quality or relevance.
I’ve been the Book Buyer at the Tate Modern and Tate Britain for over five years now. I take great care to have the very best books available, but have no issue stocking ‘low brow’ or introductory titles too. I want everyone to be involved in culture, to be able to find out about it, to access all of it. I have a massive issue with elitism, snobbery and other nonsense in the art market and how that filters into and toxifies everyone’s idea of what modern and contemporary art really is. In the shop I do everything I can to alter that impression. I want the shop to be as inclusive as possible, while still not offending the sensibilities of the people who really do know a lot about art and culture. I care deeply about creative expression, about people’s ability to do, make and create. To join in. Art should be in everyday life, not jettisoned by work and bills to a minor hobby or indulgence. So I am serious about getting good quality information out there, getting people into it, but not too precious, because life is also absurd, and funny, and while directing people towards new ideas and new books is probably a good thing to do, I’m not a surgeon saving lives.
We have some stand out titles – subjects, artists and moments in art that are perpetual good sellers. For example, we can sell hundreds of books on Rothko – perhaps it is odd that Rothko far outsells Andy Warhol here. There are lots of surprises like that, which I think are very specific to our collection and varied exhibitions. There are certain artists that have a real presence in our collection – Richter books sell very well, for example, because we have a room full of Richter. They’re our celebrities. As a result, our stock risks being unrepresentative of the actual canon of modern art and art history. I’m forever balancing and calibrating that.
The exhibition spaces allow us to make totally bespoke selections for every show, and we get a lot of space for them – for example we can take up to 120 titles for every show and dedicate a whole shop space to them. Large attendance means more sales. It’s simple really – inspiring shows inspire people to buy things – it’s all part of their experience. A really good show helps lull customers into an open, thoughtful outlook, which they then take with them when they go into the bookshop. Their discovery of new, strange ideas in the exhibitions lends very well to buying books. For a successful show, sales can go through the roof, but it’s interesting to see they increase across all the general titles, not just stock specifically related to the show.
It is necessary to have control over content and subject matter. I do masses of research and observe what customers buy and ask for to enable me to anticipate their interests. My stock decisions are regularly questioned and challenged by customers, colleagues, authors, artists and curators. I welcome objective scrutiny, but it is funny how partial and subjective people can be at times. People often point out single titles, asking why stock that book and not another, or more often, why stock her book and not mine? I understand this, because I appreciate that publishers and authors work on single book projects for months and years so can develop a bit of monomania over their projects. However, bookshops are a crowds of ever changing titles working together, an evolving multiplicity, so while I consider all titles on individual merit, how they fit in alongside other books and relate to each other in a display really matters.
I also think about long term reputation over quick wins. I have the luxury of turning down trade bestsellers because they are wildly inappropriate to the role of this particular shop. Like good art, good design and good business, I’m opposed to tat, emulation and mediocrity. There’s a lot of it about in publishing and retail. A lot. Well let’s be real, there’s a lot of it everywhere. But I have to reflect the values of the gallery in the stock choices, relate what is happening in art, culture, and publishing now, and try to anticipate the choices that will be made by customers.
Within Tate our bookshops can be contested spaces. We are secondary to the art – yet some visitors don’t even think we should be here at all and turn their noses up at commerce while others queue up for souvenirs. I respect both positions, I think that juxtaposition in our relationship with the Tate as a cultural institution makes our work all the more fascinating and worthwhile. I’m fascinated by the entanglement of culture and commerce; we deal with art, philosophy, and culture on one side, and the ultimately brutal thrust of commerce and capitalism on the other. We’re in a messy place in the middle. How do we navigate that? How do we raise funds for the gallery without selling out the galleries principles? This is the point where someone mentions the Medici’s of course, and how it has always been this way, this art and finance problem. Bookselling more broadly is in the same contested situation, selling ideas for cash. In fact bookselling is the perfect example of how culture and commerce can be successfully navigated for the greater good.
That idea of an entanglement is particularly pertinent in galleries. When we put on an exhibition, there’s often a lot of debate about the appropriateness of the content in the shop, whether it’s right or wrong. Books make up about 50 per cent of what we sell. The other half is stationery, postcards, souvenirs, T-shirts, and more expensive gifts. With that part of the stock I think the conflict issue is greater – a Picasso reproduced on a T-shirt is more controversial than a book about Picasso. But I relish that – it’s much less interesting to ignore the contradiction and say we only want to make money, or we are only interested in art. In my role here, and as a bookseller, I have to manage that contradiction every day.
Making money is an absolute necessity, but not an end in itself. What matters, and what motivates, is how that money is then used: to provide unrestricted funds to the gallery for exhibitions and learning programmes – Tate don’t have to do anything in return to receive that money, whereas with government grants and all other income streams, various commitments are attached as conditions of receiving the money. We’ve already seen and felt massive cuts to the Arts and over the next five years galleries are looking at addressing further cuts of up to 40%, which is millions of pounds every year. That means we need to generate more money inside the building, whether it’s by selling more cups of tea or more books. At the same time we don’t want to turn this place into a supermarket and compromise too far by making the content nasty. The content must never seem grasping, desperate or rudderless. A shop must retain its purpose and vision. That’s why I’m disturbed and puzzled every time I visit the British Museum.
The future at Tate Modern is very exciting. We will be opening a whole new retail space next Summer in the new extension, with a large area dedicated to books. With several more exhibitions happening every year and much more space for art, film and performances, I feel like everything up to now was just a warm up for the next stage.
We spoke to Simon Armstrong, Book Buyer for Tate Modern and Tate Britain shops, in London.
You can follow him on Twitter via @simonthebookman and see what he is reading via Instagram.
The Tate Modern is at Bankside, London, SE1 9TG – a two minute walk from Blackfriars Station (South).
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