In 2015, my friend Betty was working at Anton Kern Gallery.
One day I get a call from her. ‘Are you free right now? I need someone to drive to Pennsylvania to pick up 5,000 books for a Jim Lambie show.’
I’m a yes person, so a few short hours later I’m in Queens renting a truck and then on the road to the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania. The drive is like seven hours out and seven hours back, and I’m supposed to have the books to the gallery that night. You know, very urgent art stuff.
I didn’t really ask a lot of questions. The rate is good enough, and I have an address. I imagine that I’m driving to a massive warehouse, or some kind of facility that houses surplus books. Piles of textbooks filled with Dixieland garbage, or pulp novels sticky enough that even the charity shops rejected them. So I’m slightly surprised when I arrive at a small ranch-style house just at the end of main street. I’m greeted by a man in his mid-fifties, and his son who looks to be about fourteen. They explain to me that I should bring the box truck around and back up to the garage.
When they open the garage there are banana boxes filled with books packed to the ceiling. The man explains to me that each box has roughly 40 books, which means that we will be loading up 125 boxes. The three of us start putting the boxes on to the truck. Both the father and son are warm, but not chatty. It seems like an affectation that has been passed down for generations, a subtle form of kindness. Their manner is uncommon, but for both of them it feels natural. Each box is carefully labelled by genre and alphabetised by author.
After a few boxes are on the truck the father points out one box to me, explaining that it’s a really good one, filled with fantasy books for teens. He pulls out a book from the box. On the cover, a young heroine is surrounded by flames and portals. He comments on how the complete series is there and replaces the book carefully back in line with the others.
I start asking them questions and come to learn that the father used to own the local bookshop, Book World, which had been run out of business by Amazon a few years back. The contents of the shop had been saved in the hopes that he would be able to use eBay until he found a new location to open. But as years turned into the better part of a decade it became clear that the shop was not going to reopen. He explains the grief of losing his business, a story shockingly similar to my own family’s history. Unashamed to be vulnerable in front of his son, his eyes well up.
At this point I realise no one has explained to him what the books will be used for. In his mind, he had assumed that these were going to be sold in a book shop, that the books would be enjoyed by families and children. Or at the very least, that the books were being sold to be books.
I can’t explain to him that the books are to be used as the image of books in sculptures. That the assembling of this collection, his contribution to his community for decades before Amazon, the books that had fed his family and the mythical American Dream under which his son had been reared… were all to be art.
Globalisation had littered the garages of Middle America with tomes. And now I step in, collecting the raw waste material so that it might be reconstituted, removed of its bookness and pushed down the gaping maw of collectors who will ultimately deliver these books to climate-controlled storage units in Upper Manhattan. Their proper place, a new order, not alphabetised anymore. Just boxes in a garage (again).
We load the 125th box. Sitting in the back of the garage, there are roughly 30 boxes remaining. The sun has set, and we are standing in the light cast by the open garage door. Then, the man asks me if I could buy the remaining boxes from him.
In his voice I can hear the need to be done with this. That it was not about the money, but his need to get the ghosts out. I call Betty and explain the situation to her. I can hear Anton’s voice in the background as she relays my message. He does not agree to buy the extra books. The artist had asked for 5,000 and that was all.
I explain to the father that purchasing these final books is not my decision. I can see in the man’s eyes a hurried calculation. The particularly good box of teen books flashes before his eyes and I can tell that had he realised we would not take all of the books he would have been more judicious in selecting the remainder.
I can see an eternity of tedious eBaying laid out for this man in the dusty corner of his garage. Each unwanted novel trapped here until purchased. The son’s reaction is different. In his eyes I can see a decade of promises unravel. The father is beholden to these last few boxes and neither of them would be free of this dark god until every last remnant of hope had been cleared from the garage through a commercial transaction.
The son has a soccer game the next day. I wish him luck and drive away crying.
Morwenna Kearsley, Province (from the series Notch Code), 2021, gelatin silver contact print, 12.7 x 17.8 cm.
A couple weeks later I go to the opening of the show. I had taken to going to openings at Anton Kern. Betty and I would sit in the back room drinking tequila and making our snarky little jokes.
This particular evening Betty and I are flipping through one of the older Jim Lambie books in the office and find four grams of cocaine stuffed between the pages. Being rational art world people we are neither surprised nor impressed. When the opening is in full swing, I hear an explosion of anger, yelling from a group of gallery people in the back. The office is cleared and book after book is being thrown open. Eventually they find whatever they’re looking for.
Of the books I had picked up from the garage, not even a third had been used. Those that had were now spray painted. There is a little train hanging in the viewing room that blows smoke, an excellent metaphor for the show. Choo choo. All of the work has a shine to it that only halogen lights can give.
I go up to Jim Lambie at the after party. We are all drinking cocktails at some west village bar. I offer him some cocaine and tell him that I had picked up the books. I tell him about the father and son. I ask him for his email, and he gives it to me. Later that week I write to him explaining in greater detail about the family and the books. Jim never replies.
At the time I remember thinking that he owed this family some kind of conceptual resolution. That the remaining books should be purchased and used in some way to give this family closure. For a while I was obsessed with the idea of using the remaining books to build a bonfire on which we could spit roast lamb. Serving an easter feast to the local community. Giving that father and son one final meal out of their business.
Now I’m not so sure.