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RIP: John McWhinnie

I did not know John McWhinnie well, really even at all. Aside from the business we transacted, regularly but by no means frequently (and almost always him buying from me), I don’t think we ever uttered a personal word to each other, let alone had a personal conversation. I did not know if he was married or if he had kids (yes and no, respectively). Did not know his age (almost 44). Did not know how he came to the rare book business (like many dealers via academia). But sadly I do know these things now, because John McWhinnie died a little more than two weeks ago in a tragic snorkeling accident off the coast of the British Virgin Isles. And though I did not find out about his death until several days later, third hand and via a bookseller listserv, I still cannot help but feel a profound sadness at the loss.

I met John in person for the first time in San Francisco almost five years ago at my first ABAA book fair. It was Sunday, the last day. And I noticed a man walking down my aisle heading I presumed toward the exit. He seemed to be in a hurry; the fair was nearly over. I noticed him because he was a) young and b) stylishly dressed, two characteristics that often stand out at book fairs, where the demographics tend to skew older and…frumpier. He breezed past my booth, but getting a few steps beyond stopped suddenly. He turned and looked past me into one of my cases, then stepped closer.

“I’ll take that,” he said quietly but firmly, pointing to a copy of Just Another Asshole – an important journal from the early 80′s NYC No Wave scene. All weekend the issue had elicited only bemused or bewildered remarks, so I was secretly pleased not only that someone was buying it, but even more that someone recognized it.

“Dealer discount?” the man asked, handing me his card. “John McWhinnie at Glenn Horowitz, Booksellers” the card read.

“Of course,” I told him. I think we shook hands. I remember he was in a hurry. He paid in cash and seemed indifferent to the necessity of an invoice.

After that, I saw him at fairs more, especially once I moved to the east coast. And all of our interactions were variations on our first meeting. Suddenly John would appear in my booth, quietly but intensely examining the items on the shelves, in the cases, flipping through boxes of pamphlets. He might say hello, but usually not. Few if any pleasantries. Indeed, I often had the impression that John never remembered who I was, such was his focus and reserve. It was only after he’d selected one or two things — an issue of Ed Sanders’ FUCK YOU, a flier announcing a Vietnam-era protest — and I was writing him up, that he might ask “How’ve you been?” And I can’t deny that it pleased me that he knew who I was.

It pleased me because among book dealers of my generation (I’m 39) — and let’s define “my generation” as the often described “Gen-X,” or more specifically as those from about 35-45 — John was almost unquestionably the best. I can think of no one else who possessed both John’s unique combination of talents (the intellect, the knowledge, the curiosity, the vision, the aesthetic eye, the determination, the ambition, the taste…) AND the platform and resources to be able to use these talents to their fullest. John sold books of an astonishing variety — from Beat literature to noise rock to obscure art movements — and sold them to everyone from the New York Glitterati to major artists. But he also sold original art and photography. He tracked down rarities. He mounted exhibitions. He published books. And did all of these with a style and flair that in some ways disguised as much as revealed his deep intelligence (“scary smart,” as a colleague described him to me last week). His booth at this year’s NY Art Book Fair was a revelation. Expansive and dramatic, it was equal parts museum display, installation art, gallery exhibit, and theatrical production, combining (as the title of his blog described) the cool, the cooler, and the NFW (read: “no f***ing way). Among dealers our age, no one came close to matching his abilities and accomplishments. And even among dealers of any age, only a handful were in his league.

It may seem strange to speak of generations when it comes to bookselling – or at least perhaps to think that it has anything fundamental to do with the job. It has always been true, after all, that new members of the trade recognize and create new markets. Peter Howard was widely credited with creating much if not most of what we now think of as the modern firsts market. And before him, for example, Rostenberg and Stern were among the earliest dealers to promote women’s contributions to literature, history, and the arts. And more recently, a dealer like Harper Levine (whose gallery was next door to John’s in Long Island) has done much to foster the photobook market. This is nothing new, and certainly John was part of this tradition. As someone said of him in one of the many obituaries that have come out since his death, “He was usually two years ahead of everyone else.” But more than this, I think there is something different among serious rare book dealers of Generation X – something that separates them (us) from previous generations of young dealers.

When I look at many of my contemporaries in the book trade, what we seem to share is a particular approach to bookselling, one that combines a certain skepticism of specialization with a curatorial instinct. It is an approach that in my experience is not nearly as prevalent in quite the same way among older colleagues. As McWhinnie himself said in an excellent and revealing interview: “But in reality I feel like I am a curator that happens to surround himself with the material I would love to own myself. I like to present items in a context that makes them dialogue with other objects in unexpected ways.”

I’ve often wondered why this is, why among those of us who were children in the 1970′s and who came of age in the 1980′s, why the curatorial would seem to be the approach embraced by many of the newer and up-and-coming booksellers. And I think it has something to do with this: we were the last generation whose childhoods were not fundamentally different than our parents. Historically, of course, there were changes. But our technological and material circumstances were very similar. The differences between my childhood and my father’s though real were not wide. We both grew up in households with a black and white television and three channels, a world where phones were anchored to the wall and long distance calls were expensive. A world where computers filled entire rooms, movies had to be seen in theaters (or caught months or years later on TV), and correspondence was written by hand. In short, it was a world of cultural scarcity, whose choices were limited in no small part by where one lived.

But beginning in the early 1980′s, all of this began to change, and quickly. Cable television, microwave ovens, home computers, video games, VCRs, car and cell phones, chain stores, the internet – by the early 1990′s the cultural and technological landscape looked radically different. The transition from a traditional print culture to an electronic one had begun. And what is unique about my generation is that our youth straddled these two periods: of scarcity and abundance, page and screen. We remember a time not terribly different from that of our parents’, even – television aside – not terribly different than our grandparents’. But we were also young enough to embrace and understand the technological changes that began as we entered our adolescence and young adulthood.

We spent our formative years with one foot in each of these worlds. And this, I think, gave us a unique perspective: one that recalls with some fondness and nostalgia the simplicity of our childhoods while simultaneously recognizing and appreciating the changes that came after. It is this combination that leads to the curatorial instinct, a desire — among the myriad choices that present themselves – to winnow, to select, and to appreciate. And here’s the thing about a curatorial approach: it is unique to each practitioner, dependent on their peculiar and individual interests, knowledge, curiosity, and intelligence.

There is a popular conception (even among many booksellers) that the job of a rare book dealer involves simply waiting for books to come to you: you price them and put them for sale in a shop, or describe them and upload them to the internet. Then the seller merely sits back and waits for someone to come along and buy their books. In other words, it can appear from the outside to be a rather passive endeavor. But the truth is that the best dealers seek out material. And when they find it seek to describe and market it in a way that others have not. And attempt to find customers for it rather than wait for customers to find the material. It is — at its best — a decidedly active pursuit, and as such one can be better or worse at it. Better at uncovering new material. Smarter at recognizing new opportunities. More creative at fostering new markets and customers.

And so, when a bookseller like John McWhinnie dies, what dies with him is not simply a colleague or business. The tragedy is that what also dies are all the books that he would have sold that will now remain unsold, all the writers who will remain unappreciated, all the artists unrecognized, all the new customers who will remain undeveloped. And I mean this in a very literal sense. It is not simply that John will not be selling these books or photographs or paintings. I mean that in too many cases they will remain unsold, period, because John will not there to recognize them, to appreciate them, and to put them in their full and proper context.

I can’t help contrasting John’s death with another recent death: that of Peter Howard. I knew Peter better than I did John. I’d been to Peter’s house, met his wife, eaten dinner and socialized with him. And his death was unquestionably a loss to the book community. But Peter Howard had accomplished what he had set out to do: to build one of the best (if not the best) used and rare bookstores in the world. And after his death, those books (by some counts almost a million) will return to the bookselling ecosystem. So while the loss of Serendipity Books is a real one, it is also true that although Peter will not be selling these books, someone else will. Not in the same way or with the same skill or ablomb perhaps, but they will be sold. And although Serendipity no longer exists, it did once, and for many years. It had its impact and influence.

The same, however, cannot be said of John McWhinnie. Yes, whatever stock he currently has in his galleries with eventually find new homes. And dealers like myself will continue to take inspiration from his business example. But what I mourn since hearing of his death are the books and other cultural artifacts that will now languish without John’s keen eye to spot them and save them from neglect. For the book world, this is the true loss. And like all losses, in many ways we will never know its true extent. Peter Howard’s death and the closing of Serendipity was a loss of bookselling’s past; John’s death, a loss to its future.

Bookselling, like writing, often fosters the impression that given the right opportunity anyone can do it. And even among its practitioners, there often remains a subtle but stubborn belief that there is something inherently unfair about the success of others in the field, that luck rather than skill carries the day. It’s a belief that lends itself to petty jealousies. I would occasionally hear grumblings about John among some of my colleagues; a snide comment, a rolled eye that seemed to say, “Well of course he does well. He’s in New York.” Or: “Of course, look who he knows.” Or: “Of course, if I had that kind of capital…”

But again, like in writing, these attitudes are largely bullshit. Talent will out. And John had talent. That much was obvious, even to someone like me who, as I say, did not really know him.

His memorial was last Thursday. I heard it was very moving. Many people spoke. Norah Jones performed a song. And I found myself thinking about one of the last things John wrote to me. In our final email exchange he ended an inquiry about an item he was interested in with this question:

“You buy anything recently that is killer?”

And something about that question incapsulates for me John’s entire approach to bookselling: the “killer.” The cool and the cooler. The “no fucking way.” Few if any did it better. And no one did it the same. And that to me says everything you can about a bookseller, everything you would want to say: no one else could have done what they did. And so while I can’t miss John, not having known him, I can, do, and will miss the bookman he was. And even more, the bookman he would have been.

One Comment

  1. This is a fine tribute that closely echos my own sentiments. I didn’t know John well either, but we had similar interactions at book fairs. I too admired his decisive judgement and the uncompromising originality of his taste. Here’s to keeping that adventuresome spirit alive and well book trade. Thanks Brian.

    Wednesday, January 25, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

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