Bright Young Booksellers: Mary Catherine Kinniburgh
How did you get started in rare books?
To me, books have always had an incantatory quality. As a kid, I liked to make them—I illustrated and wrote chapbooks about things I found in the backyard with my sister, then later zines and literary magazines. And I’ve always liked large amounts of books—this took the form of maxing out my library card on weekends growing up, and later, carrying suitcases of books across Central Park as I worked on my graduate thesis.
As they say in the Teaches of Peaches, “stay in school, coz it’s the best”—so my undergraduate major was English at University of Virginia as a Jefferson Scholar. I taught yoga, waited tables, then went to Columbia for an MA in English and Comparative Literature, and later completed a PhD in English at The Graduate Center, CUNY. There, I became heavily involved in Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative—a project that publishes underpublished or understudied twentieth-century authors, generally from archival sources. This entailed going to numerous institutional archives, to storage units or garages, and working closely with librarians, estates, and poets alike.
After a particularly positive time working at UNC-Chapel Hill in the Diane di Prima Papers, I bit the bullet and lucked into a job as a page at the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature at The New York Public Library, and later became a literary manuscripts specialist there. At that time, I was obsessed with A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing 1960-1980, by Steve Clay and Rodney Philips, a book that documented the mimeograph revolution and counterculture publications in an NYPL exhibition, through collection development at the Berg, and later a digital resource. It made poetry feel close, dangerous, completely possible. Not long after I began at NYPL, I met Steve Clay at a poetry reading by Julie Ezelle Patton and Steve Dickison (who I had met on my Diane di Prima research trails). I asked if he was “the” Steve Clay, I was so excited.
After a few twists and turns, I now work at Steve Clay’s Granary Books, an independent publisher that also deals in archives and rare books. I’m proud to still be hauling boxes of books and archives from all sorts of places, and making sure they end up where they can keep contributing to our cultural record.
What is your role at Granary Books?
Granary Books has been operating for over thirty-five years, and is known for publishing limited-edition artists’ books—especially collaborations between artists and poets—as well as trade books that contribute to our understanding of artists’ books and books as material objects. Through the relationships Steve Clay built in publishing this type of work, he began to facilitate the sale of archives to institutions, and assisting in this process is one of my primary roles. In addition to processing and describing archives, I also develop rare book catalogues, tag along with publishing projects, and am on hand for whatever else the day requires.
Tell us a bit about your academic work.
I wrote a dissertation on how postwar American poets collected and conceived of their personal libraries, focusing on the libraries of Charles Olson (1910–1970) and Diane di Prima (1934–). However, I have plans to keep writing about other poets’ libraries too—especially libraries that are not placed at institutions, which is frankly many of them. Legacy libraries on the whole are notorious difficult to sell or acquire, since we consider the singular book as conceptual unit (thus, possible “duplicates” are often a consideration in acquiring legacy libraries) and lack of inscription or annotation to mean lack of evidence. And author popularity can be fickle, too—think of Herman Melville’s library, which was sold to alleviate debt after his death. Now individual books clear huge sums at auction.
I argue in my research that keeping poets’ libraries together physically, or at least documenting or examining them as such, provides us important evidence when it comes to understanding the history of information science alongside how poets built their own structures of knowledge in Cold War America—an act that for them was akin to political resistance, structuring knowledge in their own way especially on topics that were considered taboo, unintellectual, or even worth of FBI investigation. So for us too, collecting is a political act, and who and what we collect says what we value, and in particular, what or who we don’t.
What do you love about the book trade?
I will never forget the feeling of being in the stacks alone for the first time. No call slips, no paging requests, no online databases—just the books. I never wanted to give up my ability to experience that freedom, with documents I felt had changed the world. At Granary Books, that feeling is multiplied a thousand-fold—not only is Steve Clay’s personal collection jaw-dropping, but encountering special objects “in the wild” as we catalog them is a joy and an adventure. Books are some of the most readily discarded and defaced objects we kick around, but also some of the most rarefied. Seeing a copy of Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters you didn’t know existed in the bottom of a box at a storage unit just makes you want to dance. And I do!
Describe a typical day for you:
There are no typical days (I’ve found yet!), but practical rhythms. Sometimes Steve and I travel to work on archives outside of New York City, so there will be days in a family’s storage unit, artist studio, or home cataloging at lightning speed, making time for cups of tea with whoever is around. Days hauling boxes from someone’s house to our workspace, taking the best possible reference images of mimeograph magazines, cataloging glorious piles of books, emailing with curators and collectors I admire and appreciate. There is never a shortage of beautiful things to look at or work with, and I find the work that I do with authors, artists, and estates genuinely meaningful.
Favorite rare book (or ephemera) that you’ve handled?
Granary Books limited-edition artists’ books are my consistently favorite things to handle right now—whether it’s paper embedded with red lentils in Alison Knowles’s Time Samples, fantastic latex sheets bound into Henrik Drescher’s Too Much Bliss, or a Daniel Kelm binding that lets you open a book the way they must all open in heaven…well, Drescher’s titled sums it up. The type of work that Steve Clay has been able to create, in terms of collaborations between poets and artists, bookbinders and printers, and all the craft that goes into these objects, makes me glad I spent years in graduate school studying alchemy—so I would know it when I saw it.
What do you personally collect?
Right now, I don’t collect. Most of my time is spent learning from collections that others have put together, or trying to understand the logic of an archive I’m working on—sometimes even documenting collections that are set to be disbanded. But I will say: the future is young collectors, and I’m glad for conversations and projects that both encourage and teach in this vein.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I’m a member of the Steering Committee of the Maud/Olson Library, a community-based repository in Gloucester, Massachusetts, affiliated with the Gloucester Writers Center. The “MOL,” as we call it, consists of all the books that Charles Olson was thought to have ever read, collected by scholar and book collector Ralph Maud. An article on this space and how it informs our understanding of poets’ libraries as conceptual units is forthcoming in Book History this year, and I hope we can continue to attract more scholars and readers to work with these materials.
I’ve been a part of an ongoing poetry workshop with close friends for the past seven years, and I write when I can—but there are a few non-book things, too! I roller skate in the recreational league of Gotham Girls Roller Derby in New York City, and when I’m not trying to drag friends out to roller rinks, I love walking around the city, going to all the great breweries in Brooklyn, spending time with my husband, dog, and friends.
Thoughts on the present state and/or future of the rare book trade?
By the time I began working in the book trade, I had experienced archives and rare book collections from both sides of the reference desk. This gave me a strong desire to help shape collections to make a wider variety of research possible, and consider how outreach and education can better acknowledge the consequences of how collections are traditionally built. In doing so, we can create accountability, and also space for new ways of working with books and the histories they represent. Working in the book trade allows me to use my skills for this greater good, to try and invite in more voices and collections that are deserving of quality research, institutional homes, and our attention.
To that end, many of us are invested in addressing archival silences—histories (and people) that have been traditionally excluded from special collections. Sitting in graduate school seminars, it is very easy to think of archival silence as a monolithic feature, when we might also consider it as the result of a series of choices by people involved in special collections ecosystems—still today! I love collaborating with curators to find things that fit their research and teaching agendas for collections, especially those that can show others that the power to collect and transform archival and rare book institutions is really in each of our hands.
Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?
I’m thrilled to share that Granary Books has an exhibition opening at Poets House in New York City this spring, with works from 2000 onward. We’ll have forthcoming publications for 2020 on display, including a limited-edition artists’ book by Timothy Ely and Whit Griffin, as well as a facsimile reproduction of Jane Wodening’s stunning scrapbooks from the 1960s.
The best way to hear what we’re offering—including archives and rare book catalogs—is to join our mailing list, at the bottom of our website’s main page. Recent book collections include a prospectus of Ron Padgett’s print publications and 0 to 9 magazine and books; and archives include the papers of Marjorie Welish, Jane Wodening, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Anselm Hollo, Ron Padgett, and many others that you can browse on our “Archives” page.