Bright Young Booksellers: Nelson Harst

Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Nelson Harst of Antifurniture in New York City:

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How did you get started in rare books?

I’ve always worked in books, including great independent bookstores like the University Book Store in Seattle and Book Culture in New York. I’ve also sold extensively online. At some point in those book selling roles, I began to focus more on the rare and collectible. 

My particular interest is in display, curation and arrangement of books. For several years, I’ve been involved in the Bidoun Library project. We did shows at the New Museum, Serpentine Gallery and most recently the Carnegie Museums’s last International show in 2013. The Bidoun Library was about presenting books about/from/around the “Middle East.” We included some very rare and valuable items, such as Iranian revolutionary magazines and propaganda photobooks. We had an incredible archive of posters, stickers and flyers that circulated around Tahir Square during the spring of 2010. But then we’d also do things like buy every book on Amazon priced under a dollar that had “Arab” or “Veil” in the title. There’s a lot of them. 

We’d juxtapose the cheap, crap books next to the rare items. In the exhibit, most of the books could be picked up and flipped through; I like to make books accessible and get them out from under the glass vitrines whenever possible. Though as I’ve had access to better books, I’ve learned something about this great contradiction of accessibility. On one hand, rare books maintain their value by not being handled; on the other hand the key to engaging a new generation of collectors and book users is literally getting the best books into people’s hands.

My real break into dealing truly rare books came in summer of 2014. Two things happened, almost at the exact same time. First of all, I enrolled in CABS that summer and learned massively about the inside mechanics of the trade. Completely by coincidence, Harper of Harper’s Books contacted me a week prior to CABS. He had no idea I was attending CABS. But Harper had noticed what I was doing on Instagram and on the streets of NYC. Since then I’ve been working as a sort of traveling medicine show for his books as well as my own. Harper has incredible material and a creative and eclectic taste; I’ve been very lucky to have had the chance to work with him and his team.

When did you open Antifurniture and what do you specialize in?

I started Antifurniture in the spring of 2014. It started as a sort of social media experiment on Instagram and then evolved into a NYC book table on the corner of Howard and Broadway in SoHo. My focus has always been visual books. I sum up the scope as as “Visual Culture, Pop to Post Modern.” Some of the subjects I stock include photography, fashion, architecture, art and commercial illustration. Many of my customers are designers, artists and stylists. Often, they are buying my books primarily as reference material rather than as collectible objects-- though often, the impulse to collect does run parallel to creative work.

Please introduce us to your mobile bookstore model:

I like to appear in unlikely places with my books. Last summer, my main spot was in SoHo on the corner of Broadway and Howard Street, just above Canal. But I also appeared in the East Village, Chinatown and Chelsea. My set up is compact enough to fit in even the smallest NYC cab. Two fold up tables, four crates and a directors chair. I also pack a clock, because I think its important to take time into account when dealing with books. Sometimes I also bring a little camp stool too if I’m expecting friends to stop by and hang out. Since the onset of winter though I’ve had to abandon the street model. I’m experimenting now with open house Sunday’s at my apartment in Williamsburg as well as hotel room pop up shops, an idea Harper invented along with Fulton Ryder a couple years prior. 

We also understand you use Instagram in a creative way to advertise your business.  Please tell us about that as well:

I post daily, sometimes several times daily, to my Instagram account, @antifurniture. I always do three posts. A cover shot of course, and two interiors. Sometimes if a book is really great, I do a series of six posts. Aside from my table and pop up shops, my bookstore is virtual and appears on your phone, anywhere in the world. Instagram is not just am advertising tool, it’s an actual marketplace where I buy and sell and chat with other like minded dealers and collectors. It’s also what I do instead of a website, searchable inventory or lists. 

What do you love about the book trade?

It’s an exceptionally cordial and fun profession. It’s also a very creative and open field; anything could be a book. I love being part of the visual culture ecosystem of artists, designers, editors, museums and libraries. But what I love most of all is the space a bookstore creates. When I set up my table on the street, the most fantastic and unrelated people start congregating and browsing and chatting. Something about a selection of books creatives a conversation place, a salon bubble that’s really very special.

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

A nearly unknown fashion forecast journal called Presage by an nearly unknown creative director named Rosita Fanto. It’s one of Harper’s. He has a massive archive of the journal, over 80 installments in total. Each installment is a hand made book arts piece that functions as a swatch book, color palate and inspiration object for designers. It ran from 1962 through 1986 and had a small but dedicated audience of people working in the fashion trade. I’ve never seen anything like it before. Because the audience was international, with subscribers everywhere from Paris to Taiwan, Fanto created a non-verbal language that is both visual and tactile. It’s a vastly under appreciated creation.

What do you personally collect?

Not books! But I do rather haphazardly collect LPs and postcards. 

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

The book trade is obviously at a transitional moment. It’s probably a transition that will never resolve entirely. People think they need books less, but the most active users of books (artists, designers and writers) understand that the print object remains a unique and valuable storage technology. If the book trade is going to remain vibrant, that interest in books must be stimulated. Rare books must function both as collectible objects, cultural totems, but must also continue to exist and be created as useful active objects. 

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