Bright Young Things: Underground Books

Our series profiling the next generation of antiquarian booksellers continues today with Josh Niesse, proprietor of Underground Books in Carrollton, Georgia. Underground Books will be celebrating its one year anniversary this weekend.

Josh Niesse UB Storefront.JPG
NP: How did you get started in rare books?

JN: Funnily, I feel like I could almost answer that question "I'm still getting ready to start."  My collection of rare, collectible, genuinely antiquarian books is paltry, certainly by most ABAA member standards.  I probably have less than 150 books in the $50-$500 range, and none above that.  Really I'm trying to build a bookstore right now that is a reflection of my own interests and that seems to fill a gap in my community, and the development of the rare book portion of that store will be ongoing.  Underground Books has, as I see it, three split identities: a general purpose used bookshop with broad appeal; a radical bookstore with an emphasis on outsider politics, bohemianism, art, psychology, philosophy, etc.; and a rare/out-of-print/antiquarian bookshop.  It's a little schizophrenic from the perspective of bookstore-identity, but it's what I enjoy and the response has been positive. 

Until I attended the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, I'd been operating "in the wilderness".  I had no idea there was a whole world of scouts using hand scanners, nor did I have a connection to the world of serious booksellers.  A couple months before I opened, a friend connected me to Ken Mallory an ABAA dealer in Atlanta. Ken told me about CABS, and I promptly applied for a scholarship. I was offered several of the scholarships I applied for and ended up taking the ABE Books scholarship and headed out to Colorado Springs to have my eyes peeled open to see how incredibly little I knew about what I had just decided to do with my life.  Now I'm about a year in to having the open shop and am continually learning what an incredible novice I still am.

NP: When did you open Underground Books?  What do you specialize in?

JN: I opened the store on March 20th, 2011, with a big grand opening celebration. So many people had helped contribute to getting the space ready; it really was a community effort.  As for a specialty, I'm still very much working this out.  The strongest sections of my store are the philosophy and psychology sections.  The University of West Georgia here has one of the oldest and largest humanistic psychology programs in the country, and it brings a delightful collection of weirdos and intellectuals to our small town rural area. Lots of these folks end up sticking around and making this area their permanent home, and it's given the town a bohemian and hippie undercurrent that's unique for a small town in rural west Georgia. So this makes philosophy and psychology a natural specialization because of access to both supply and demand for these kinds of books.  My varied personal interests drive dreams of all sorts of unusual specializations, but really I've been so preoccupied with the day-to-day of managing the open shop, I've barely scratched the surface of exploring specializations. I'm inspired by ABE Books' "Weird Book Room" and hope to work a lot more with "weird" books.????

NP: Did you start off selling online, then open the brick-and-mortar store later?  How do you like having an open shop?

JN: Yes, I started online, but I wouldn't want to go back to just web-based again.  Even though the storefront is far from a cash cow, it really does fill a vital community niche, and is tremendously rewarding.  If I'm going to be fool enough to sell books, I might as well be able to share the space I'm in with others who appreciate them as much as I do!????

NP: From my understanding, you are part of an intentional community. Could you tell us a bit about that and how it plays into your bookselling life???

JN: To avoid a long discussion of what an intentional community is for those that may not know, I'll just direct people to the website  Our group basically has a huge 100 year old house a couple blocks from Carrollton's downtown square where Underground Books and the Alley Cat are located.  It has the flavor of a student housing cooperative meeting an artist colony. We garden, have shared meals, perform private backyard "underground" theatre in our marble paved courtyard (including in-house adaptations of The Princess Bride and Tom Robbins' Jitterbug Perfume), make many household related decisions cooperatively, etc. We also have a sister property that is a small permaculture, off-the-grid eco-farm. 

Part of intentional community is creating spaces where something different from the mainstream norm can take place safely. I see my bookstore as an extension of that.  It's become a local cultural community center, with lectures, author events, documentary screenings, and so on. I also helped spearhead a local movement this past fall when our small town conservative mayor banned the Rocky Horror Show from being performed at the community theatre. This made national news in Time magazine and is up for a DC watchdog group's best 10 censorship stories of 2011.  I think bookstores should be outspoken advocates for free thought and expression.  Being interested in building intentional community informs all of this.
NP: Favorite or most interesting book (or etc) you've handled???

JN: I've developed a soft spot for scarce occult books and secret society ephemera since opening the store, because they are both beautiful and mysterious.  I sold a gorgeous, huge, 2 volume set of The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus by Arthur Edward Waite.  It was a 1909 New York edition pirated from the 1890 London first. Just a couple weeks ago, I got a true first of Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls that I also consider a treasure in my store collection.
NP: What do you personally collect?

JN: ??I'm starting to collect Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins, just because I'm a huge fan of their zany literary strand.  I also really like what I call "fascist kitsch" - old red scare pamphlets, early 1900's women's marriage guides, stuff that seems crazy to us now but was in the mainstream of political acceptability in its time.  I like these because they're such reminders of how fragile our liberties are, how it's really not that long ago that what seems now like extreme right wing domination and control over women, minorities, gays, etc. was the norm. 

NP: What do you love about the book trade???

JN: There's so much.  Though I tend to find it annoying the way the bookseller old timers gripe about the industry dying off, I must also admit that I'm kind of attracted to the way that situates me in a kind of Don Quixote story.  Amazon and e-books are the windmills.  When I was first telling people that I was opening a bookstore, someone asked me, "Why don't you just open a Blockbuster video?"  Nonetheless, there's a certain romance and charm to the seeming futility of it all.

I also just love booksellers. I made some friends for life at CABS.  It's not like booksellers aren't looking to make a living - they are - but there's also a genuine spirit of generosity that seems to permeate the field. And they're crazy! Every last one of them I've met; you have to be, at least a little.  And they know how to party. As a bartender I didn't expect a bunch of book nerds at CABS to be able to out-drink me, but man, book people can go all night. There's such an aesthetic quality to books, their smell, their feel in your hands, it makes sense that book people would be such epicureans, drink too much, love rich foods, talk into the wee hours - they're my people!

??NP: Any thoughts to share on the future of the book trade???

JN: There's this great quote I've seen floating around Facebook from the master of trashy B-movies, John Waters: "We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody, and they don't have books, don't (sleep with) them."  I love that sentiment.  I think we might be missing a great moment here as the old guard booksellers gripe about the death of collecting.  Honestly, being nerdy and smart is cooler and more hip than it's ever been.  And those people love real, tangible books as much as ever, it's just that tastes are changing. I think bookseller specializations just haven't caught up with these seemingly fickle shifts. I want to see more exploration of the weirdo iconoclast edge of the book trade. There's so much out there still to explore -we just have to get creative!
NP: What do you have in store for your one year anniversary?

JN: I have a live musical act from local phenoms and folk-country-hippie-punk-chicks The Opposite of Hee-Haw, snacks and refreshments from local watering hole and music venue the Alley Cat, kids art activities from my neighbor Blue Heron Art Studio, and a big sidewalk sale to try to move some inventory as well. We'll hang out in the sweet little charming space, chat, eat food, drink coffee, talk about books and life, and enjoy some good music.  Then we'll head to the Alley Cat for the grown-up late-night part of the celebration!