Bright Young Booksellers: Yarran L. Jenkins

Image provided by Yarran Jenkins

Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Yarran L. Jenkins, proprietor of The Book Merchant Jenkins in Brisbane, Australia:

How did you get started in rare books?

I started collecting books and art in my teens, mostly psychedelia and outsider material. When I was nineteen I read a little about selling books, it all made sense, and I started doing it. A few years earlier I realized I had to be an artist. Consequently, I have always considered myself an artist-bookseller.

Prior to selling the books I had collected, I published a book of poetry and a few volumes of a collection of international surreal art and writing. Since then, bookselling has taken many shapes: as a traveling bookstore at festivals, online, popups and permanent fixtures in cafes and galleries, carboot sales, markets, stand-alone shops, a wholesale operation, and a 24 hour book shed. Now, my main business is a general antiquarian bookstore in a converted church hall.

Along the way rare books appeared in my inventory but I feel it has only been in the last few years that I have developed enough to really appreciate the different materials I come across. It took around fifteen years of handling countless books, from firewood to unique items, and picking up bits and pieces of insight from fellow book folk before I could say I have “started in rare books.”

When did you open The Book Merchant Jenkins and what do you specialize in? (Please also let us know about the 24-Hour Book Shed).

The Book Merchant Jenkins opened in 2018. It is a general antiquarian bookstore with a focus on sexuality, LGBTIQ+, ethnopharmacology, dance, performance, and art.

Since 2006 I operated under the Logical Unsanity Books & Miscellaneous Phantasmagoria banner, which is still the name the 24-Hour Book Shed goes by. The shed started in 2014 as the bargain books in the carport of a small shop space I leased. Rather than bringing the books in at the end of the day I stuck up some lights, put out an honesty box, and left it at that. It quickly gained a lot of attention and became something quite special. I no longer have the shop space behind it, but the shed is still there and going strong coming on seven years of 24-hour non-stop book times.

Tell us about your days as a traveling bookstore:

One of my first ventures into bookselling was taking my collection out to a three-day music festival a few hours from the city. People loved it, I sold some books, and had a lot of fun. There was an epic storm on the last night and it was a frantic rush to save everything, but the books survived and the shop carried on to appear at other outdoor events.

A little while after this I built some shelves in a small cafe in Brisbane. Not long after that I had the opportunity to procure the stock of a shop that was closing down and filled the basement under the cafe with those books.

There was a solid festival circuit in Australia at this time so I hit the road in a small van overloaded with books and built a string of popup shops. It was a pretty loose DIY operation: a few tarps over a marquee, long nights filled with rambling people and loud music, and lots of lifting of heavy boxes of books.

There are vast distances between the cities in Australia often making it a long journey from one destination to the next. As much as possible I would take the scenic road, go surfing, drop in on people in different towns, and of course, scout books along the way. After a year or so on the road I had an opportunity to build a little shop in Melbourne. I still had the stock in the cafe in Brisbane and the two cities are about 1,800km (1,100 miles) apart so the traveling continued, carting books between the two, buying and selling along the way at festivals, markets, wherever I could.

After another year or so the whole DIY operation working on opposite sides of the country was all a bit much. I closed the Melbourne shop, came back to Brisbane, briefly commenced a library degree before hitting the road again. I did another season on the festival circuit this time with a small car of books which I moonlighted while working on a double-decker bus making food and coffee. During that time, the Brisbane cafe changed hands and the books had to get out of the basement. At the end of the summer I returned to Brisbane, leased a new space, and started the shop where the 24-hour shed is now.

The bookshop doesn’t travel as much these days. Since returning to Brisbane I started taking a truckload of books to two local festivals a year, a much larger set up than in the traveling days. With the pandemic though such things are taking a break.

What do you love about the book trade?

That there is no one way to buy and sell books. At every level there are many avenues to the trade. This makes for some interesting folks that take it up, each with their own method and personality. While not exclusive to misfits it is definitely a safe haven for many and by and large a collegial one. I don’t know too many industries where would-be competitors are more often seen as colleagues.

Bookselling is also a constant reminder of the breadth and depth of human experience. The diversity of materials crossing my desk from fine art to amateur smut, academic texts to surreal fiction, fine bindings to local ephemera, every day there are new treasures and oddities to discover.

Describe a typical day for you:

It has pretty much been a one-human show here since the pandemic started so I typically do a bit of everything everyday. Some light admin and cataloguing with coffee and breakfast at home. Drive into the shop. More admin. Invoicing, picking, packing. More cataloguing with a mix of acquisitions, sorting, shelving, photographing, putting lists together, business development, and more admin. If it's an open shop day, serving, if it's a closed shop day, possible house calls and visiting other bookshops. In the evening drive over to the book shed to sort and tidy.

Favorite rare book (or ephemera) that you’ve handled?

I don’t know if I will ever call something my favorite. At the moment, a highlight in the shop is a large clamshell filled with photographs of Noh masks. A recent highlight was Strange Papers: A Collection of the World's Rarest Handmade Papers. Large folders of prints and samples are not necessarily favorites but these two items are definitely recent highlights.

What do you personally collect?

For a long time I didn't collect for myself while simultaneously feeling like all the books were my personal collection. Right from the start I hung onto the point that the books were for selling not collecting. That said, I have always maintained a small library of art, poetry, fiction, and other odds and ends of relevance to me and over the last few years I have started collecting material on butoh, and related content in dance, the body, and performance art. I'm interested in awareness of the body in space and ideas arising from perception of “the big sky.”

What do you like to do outside of work?

Hanging out with my partner, dancing, drawing, eating, reading, movies, conversation, sex, sleep, and any activity that gets me out of my head and my adrenaline going.

Thoughts on the present state and/or future of the rare book trade?

I’m optimistic about the trade when I’m not pessimistic about the world. On a local level there has been a small increase in neighborhood bookstores over the past few years after many years of decline. Online is simultaneously great and a mess. I think rare books will continue to have a strong trade so long as there is a world to live in. Lots of people are still buying and reading books, so there is that to inspire hope.

Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?

I publish a list of newly catalogued items every week, The Weekly Jenkins.

Australia doesn’t have a fair circuit like the US. There is the ANZAAB fair at which, as a new member, I look forward to exhibiting, but with the pandemic this is on hold.

Over the past year I have been putting together a regional used and rare booksellers association with the member directory due to be published in the next couple of months. One of the plans is to have a crack at a local fair, though as with the ANZAAB fair, event plans are on hold. Maybe 2022?