Bright Young Things: Christy Smirl

Flo McCall

Our Bright Young series continues today with Christy Smirl who has blended together elements of bookselling, librarianship, and interior design in a unique business model with her company Foxtail Books & Library Services in Jackson Hole, Wyoming:

How did you get started working with rare books / libraries / interior design? How did these interests blend together for you?

After 15 years in a fairly traditional library career, I realized how many collectors and book lovers were out there who could use help with their books. Particularly if someone has either amassed a lot of books in a lifetime or if they have more than one home, and want to live in a space surrounded by books, those are problems that need to be solved. I have an eye for design as well as a head for logistics and project management, but I had no desire to leave the book world. I simply wanted to do something new. Foxtail Books & Library Services was created using all of those elements. I pursued the world of rare books after I had started my business; the fact is that the client who is interested in a beautiful home library is also often the client who is interested in especially special and unusual books. It’s been fun to find myself between all of these worlds: libraries, interior design, publishing, and rare books. My work is related to all of theirs, but is also entirely unique. 

When did you open Foxtail Books & Library Services?  Please introduce us to your unique business model:

I started providing home library services in 2017, first in the resort town of Jackson Hole, and eventually working nationally. I create personalized library collections for homeowners and also solve problems for people with large or valuable collections. To give you an example of the variety of work I do: in February I organized a collection of several thousand books on birds, wildlife, and hunting in Houston. Last month I provided project management for a New York-area collection that needed to be divided between two homes. I’m currently curating collections of books for three clients. The most unusual of those is a sports collection. The one I’m enjoying most will include objects alongside the books that work with the midcentury design of the home. 

Describe a typical day for you:

If I’m onsite at a project, a typical day is spent moving books efficiently into an accessible, attractive plan for the space. That involves efficient decision-making, lifting, and creativity. When I’m in my office, a typical day might include receiving packages for curating projects, touching base with clients about options and scheduling, and looking through our vendors’ catalogs for just the right books for projects to come.  

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

I love books that tell the history of the American West in a new way.  I once had the pleasure of consigning a copy of the Taos Pueblo, one of only 108 copies of Ansel Adams’s first bound edition. It’s special because Adams was not yet famous, and because he printed the photographs himself. It’s also a beautiful example of fine bookbinding in the early 20th century, by San Francisco bookbinder Hazel Dreis, and includes an essay by Mary Austin, “grand dame of the western literati.” 

But in some ways, I get just as much of a kick out of fairly ordinary books from the 18th or 19th century, if they have personalized inscriptions in really great handwriting. Or something completely unexpected will throw me for a loop: At this year’s antiquarian book fair in New York, I was able to browse one of those items that makes you realize how wide and beautiful the world of rare books can be.  Actually, the seller of this incredible but mysterious illustrated WWII-era manuscript is making its imagery available on Instagram: if you haven’t seen @europaredux, I recommend checking it out. 

How about a favorite collection you've helped curate?

It might be variety that drew me to library work in the first place -- the variety of interests, stories, and artistic expression out there in the world of books. My favorite collections are those for families, because I get to choose books for multiple people, each a different age, with unique interests and reading tastes. For example, right now I’m working on a collection for a family in Los Angeles with three young girls. It’s fascinating to dive into the best of literary fiction and classics for one parent, business and technology for another. I’m also including a selection of books providing context for the art in the home. And who doesn’t love exploring children’s literature? It’s a dream job.  

A favorite library you've designed?

My favorite project last year was choosing books and objects for a New York loft that was a mix of modern and Art Deco interior design.  We curated a collection of books on the music industry, as well as the history of modern art and photography, all of which went perfectly with the space.  It’s such a pleasure to find just the right books for a client, and choosing a vase or sculpture to sit alongside them, to complete the visual puzzle, makes it all the more enjoyable.   

What do you personally collect?

I collect local history about Jackson Hole and the Tetons, though our written history is rather young, even in the West. I enjoy books with illustrations of the history of mountain sports, particularly skiing and mountaineering. And I have always loved a good publisher’s binding, particularly Art Nouveau designs. Margaret Armstrong is a favorite designer.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I like exploring both the mountains and a good city, now and then.  My husband and I are skiers, hikers and backpackers here in Jackson. We are lucky enough to live in a cabin in the woods, surrounded by wildlife and, come summer, wildflowers. One of the perks of my job is the travel. Just when I have tired of snow boots or the limited restaurant options of small town life, I get to spend a week working in a great city. It’s a fantastic excuse to explore museums, restaurants, bookshops, and people. 

Any thoughts to share on the future of private library design? A growing field?

I do think there is a growing value in our culture for authentic, meaningful objects in the home, but this is an incredibly niche field. I’m the only private librarian in the country offering precisely these services, but that’s not necessarily to say the field has room for growth. It’s a very specific client who is interested in this service, who either needs help with the books they have or has a new home to fill, and, especially, who can afford it. It’s a field that follows spending trends like those of fine art and high end interior design. I certainly hope to see growth in the world of private library design, though. There is nothing quite like the feeling of a home with intellectual and personal depth to it, after all. And I find that the people who chose to spend their life surrounded by books, by information and stories? They’re good people.