Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Bryn Hoffman, proprietor of Pyewacket Books in Oakland, California:
How did you get started in rare books?
I was working as an archivist last year and I started meeting independent booksellers and was realized I could totally do that. My undergraduate work was done at St. John's College in Santa Fe, NM, the great books school, where I studied philosophy and comparative literature and I got my MLIS with an archives concentration from Simmons College. Also I've been bookbinding on and off since I was a teen, so once I learned that "rare book dealer" was an actual job, it was obvious to me that I was built for it.
As I learned more about the trade, I started to fall in love with this idea of bookselling in which we could actually help change the larger cultural landscape by reimagining and re-cataloguing important materials. We get to scour flea markets, auction houses, and personal collections with impunity. I was always a thrift store/garage sale/flea market kid, so this is just the best for me. We also get to catalogue without institutional bias and present materials in the light we think they should be seen. In my lists, I get to say what I think is important and why. That's powerful.
Unfortunately, as I've met more booksellers and learned more about the trade I've realized that it is, in fact, eating itself. A lot of us are selling the same books in the same ways to the same people. This is a bummer, but it's not enough to drive me away. I think that there's a lot of potential in bookselling and I'm confident that it can be extracted from the mire.
When did you open Pyewacket Books and what do you specialize in?
I started on April 2nd. I'm focusing primarily on occult books and esoterica, LGBTQIA materials, and things pertaining to sex and sex work, but I'm open to anything else important, curious, interesting, odd.
What do you love about the book trade?
I like owning my labour and my time. I'm doing a lot of the things I did as a librarian and archivist - cataloguing, researching, banging my head against a keyboard - but at 3am in my bed or 2pm in a coffeeshop in North Beach. I've been on the move for the past several years, so I like that this line of work allows me freedom of movement. Plus some of the people have been chill so far. Oh, and spending all my time with books pretty neat, too.
Describe a typical day for you:
I put on my bathrobe, make coffee, and check emails and social media. I generally chill like that for awhile before starting in on work-work, which right now consists of cataloguing and book hunting. The Bay Area is chockablock full of neat places to find books so I never want for adventure. I usually like to pack a bag with snacks, my laptop, and a few books to-be-catalogued and venture out. My apartment is hella small and our cat is a pubescent maniac so it's not easy working from home. I work in caf?s, public parks - wherever there's wifi. I've been making an effort to put out one short list per week. Once the list goes out, all those items get added to my website, where they're available for sale. I try to put out lists on a theme - no matter how loose. This feels sustainable so far - we'll see what the future holds.
Favorite rare book (or ephemera) that you've handled?
I was at the Vermont State Archives for a hot minute, doing an internship, and they had this letter written and signed by George Washington in which he expounded on the virtues of Vermonters - tough as nails, gritty, full of whatever "moxie" was in the 18th century. He said that they were rad but also sort of assholes because their loyalty to "the cause" was always in jeopardy. If they thought for even a second that Vermont was in danger of attack they'd hightail it to the home defense. I am a Vermonter and identified with the sentiment. I also appreciated Washington's candor and very fine handwriting.
What do you personally collect?
I collect a bit around bookbinding. The thing I'm always hunting for are zines and handmade/artists books about online dating and artists books about relationships in general. That may seem niche but I've got a pretty solid collection going. A few years ago I was at a zine fest and this person had a zine they'd written about dating via craigslist in, like, 2005. You know, before OkCupid and all the others. I didn't have the cash on me to buy it (it was like $5) and I've regretted it ever since. I've actually been thinking about that a lot in the past few weeks, especially in the lead-up to SESTA/FOSTA being passed. You can't do that anymore - date via craigslist - and it's one of those things that disappears quietly but leaves a big hole. When the next-next generation asks "what happened?" we're going to want documents like that zine to attest to the fact it wasn't always this way. Man, I really fucked up not buying it.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I'm an avid pedestrian so I usually spend a good portion of my day walking around Oakland or San Francisco. I mentioned bookbinding already. I also spend a lot of time knitting and weaving. I just made a loom that I'm pretty excited about.
Thoughts on the present state and/or future of the rare book trade?
I'll preface by saying that it ain't gonna look like what it looks like now if it's going to survive. That said, there are definitely some rad booksellers out and about. For example, I'm stoked to be in the profession with the likes of Rachel Furnari of Graph Books and A.N. Devers of The Second Shelf. I'm also a big fan of Fuchsia Voremberg over at Maggs. That said, I think the book trade as a whole needs to take a good long look at itself and ask where are the women in the room? Where are the queers? Where are the people of colour? If we're not actively engaged in making the trade more accessible to new collectors and new?booksellers who are not just straight cisgender white dudes of a certain age, we're going to collapse. And we'll deserve to.
Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?
I'll be exhibiting at the Rose City Book & Paper Fair in Portland in June,?and at the Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair in September. I hope to have my first print catalogue ready by the end of the calendar year, but I'm not ready to get into that yet - It's gonna be rad though. I'll also be out and about and buying at Battersea at the end of May. I am STOKED to meet Sir David Attenborough.
[Image provided by Bryn Hoffman]