Story as Object, Object as Story: Judging Marc Jacobs’ Bookmarc by Its Covers

According to Goodreads, I read 41 books last year. You would think I spent a fair amount of time in bookstores. But the more “professionalized” my reading and writing life becomes (I’m using quotation marks because the total income from my writing career is still vastly smaller than my student loan), the less time I spend browsing for what to read next.

So when I found myself in Marc Jacobs’ Bookmarc, I was surprised by a rush of magical, childlike giddiness. I went in with my hackles up: Marc Jacobs’ corporate headquarters had famously overtaken the Soho building that once housed the New York branch of my literary nonprofit. It seemed more than a little ironic to kick out a literary org and then open a bookstore.

Just the tip of the Marc Jacobs iceberg.

Iceberg, with giant shoe.

I was also surprised because I’d sort of forgotten that books are more than just what’s between their pages. In literary circles and on Kindle commercials, there’s a running dialogue that goes something like this:

Book People: What about the tactile feel of the pages? The beautiful cover art? The smell of the ink?

Kindle People: Stop fetishizing the death of trees. The point is reading. The point is stories. The future is digitized.

Put a bird on it! In case you wondered, Marc Jacobs also makes iPad covers.

Although I don’t own an e-reader, mostly because I’m a late adopter and a lot of small press books still aren’t available as e-books, I tend to agree with the Kindle camp. But while the Internet is increasingly searchable, it has yet to be as browse-able as brick-and-mortar. You can’t go online and just stand there waiting for something to speak to your soul.*

Bookmarc is an extreme example of browse-ability, given that it is curated like a museum, with an eye for the visual. The Melrose Place location in West Hollywood, California, is smaller than local beloved indies like Skylight, Vroman’s and The Last Bookstore, and infinitely smaller than the Internet. Specialization is everything.

Bookmarc director Jennifer Baker, who planted the seed for Bookmarc when she began buying books for the other Marc stores, scours book fairs for “unusual things.”

“A lot of it is just instinct,” she says. She shows me Sappho by the Sea, which is one part winking tour guide to the Hamptons, one part ’70s lesbian-chic fashion shoot, several parts something I’m not sure if I have the deep cultural savvy to even process. Later she flips through an Anne Sexton book and says, “This would be the perfect text for Sappho by the Sea.

If you can’t afford designer clothes, just go naked.

Some of the rare books run in the triple digits, making them truly museum pieces, though cheaper than, say, a Marc Jacobs Silk Faille V-Neck Dress from the Spring ’12 collection.

Bookmarc makes me crave a fat book of gritty photography or of fashion history, and there are plenty to choose from. I’m fascinated by Nollywood, a pictorial tour through Nigeria’s small film industry, and I can see why a poet friend of mine recently became obsessed with Nan Goldin.

I don’t know if Nollywood is anything like Bollywood, but I really want this movie to be a musical.

Portrait of young badass with fruit, by Nan Goldin.

Baker’s favorite is RFK Funeral Train,  a lush book of color photos by Paul Fusco from the train ride that carried Robert Kennedy’s body back from Los Angeles after he was assassinated. She admits she gets a little emotional every time she opens it, and I don’t blame her. Sailors, farmers and girls with beehives line up beside the tracks to salute, as the speeding train and history itself blur their edges.

Hope and change, the 1968 version.

The books are organized aesthetically as much as thematically, with volumes in neat sculptural piles. An illustrated edition of The Elements of Style—Strunk and White’s classic reference book for journalists and other writers—is displayed next to David Hockney’s Dog Days and a book called Show Dogs, apparently because they all have canines on the covers.

Stylish: The bloodhound likes to play with color, but the wiener dog infuses humor with quiet dignity.

Baker explains her non-system: “The sexy books merge into the Richard Prince/Warhol section, but it’s also just about what looks good together.” This increases the customer’s chances of stumbling upon the unexpected. Kind of like the time I image-searched “birthday bunny” hoping for a rabbit in a party hat and found myself looking at very disturbing porn. But, you know, nicer than that.

Okay, so Bookmarc is beautiful, but is it literary? Given the limits of my own knowledge of the art, fashion and photo worlds, I have to judge by its fiction, poetry and queer studies sections.

Fiction and poetry: According to sales associate Adrienne Loth, Bookmarc seeks out foreign editions of familiar works, so a lovely, embroidered Emma looks out at me from the shelf next to an iconic, drag-worthy Liza Minnelli. L.A. is well represented by John Fante.

Life is a cabaret, except when it’s a proper 19th century garden party.

I crack open Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency and am immediately smitten with “Les Etiquettes Juanes,” even though I think poems with French titles are kind of showing off.

Leaf! you are so big!
How can you change your
color, then just fall!

As if there were no
such thing as integrity!

Leaf! don’t be neurotic
like the small chameleon.

Frank O’Hara was a small neurotic chameleon in hopeless love with the grit and glamour of street life. Bookmarc is a shiny store in a shiny neighborhood, but to love its books is to share O’Hara’s longing: Look at this—crazy! Look at THIS!

“People thought we’d just be selling graphic novels and things like that,” Baker says, “but from the first day, we were selling poetry.” (And you will have to go elsewhere for the latest installment of The Walking Dead.)

Queer studies: Maybe “studies” isn’t the right word—it implies block quotes and footnotes. But you will find—much more fun!—Amos Mac’s Translady Fanzine and the transguy magazine Original Plumbing, which, even though IBC’s own Thomas McBee is a contributor, I had never actually seen a hardcopy of. You can also pick up your favorite retro pulp novel; I am drawn to Whisper Their Love by Valerie Taylor, which was my mom’s maiden name (Mom, what did you do before becoming a mild-mannered librarian?!).

There is no section about actual plumbing, as far as I know.

Most of the Yelp reviews reference Bookmarc’s jewelry section, evoking a recent New Yorker cover depicting a guy browsing a store that has more famous-author bobbleheads than actual books. It’s true that you can buy an uncut key necklace in the shape of a heart (let’s shack up!) or a fist (stay away, but please check my mail while I’m out of town?). Or a lipstick pen, iPhone cover or polka dot umbrella.

Nothing is more street than a MARC knuckle tattoo.

But the book-to-bauble ratio is way smaller than at Barnes & Noble or even most indies. Baker says they’ll soon be clearing more square footage for books. What will go there depends on Jennifer’s whims, as inspired by Marc Jacobs’ whims: “The last show he staged was inspired by Bob Fosse. We have a dance section, so I was moved by that.”

He’s reading the knuckle tattoos on his jazz hand: F-O-S-S-E, baby.

I chat with the sales staff, who confirm that the whole Marc Jacobs company is a big, do-what-moves-you family (as anyone with a family knows, this may be a blessing and a curse). When I leave, an associate who bikes across town from the Eastside every day hands me a tiny, pristine Marc Jacobs bag. It contains two Meyer lemons he just picked from his tree.

*Again, I will add yet. Last weekend I went to a self-serve Jack in the Box where you ordered on a touch screen. This confirmed my suspicion that the robots are, in fact, taking over.

About Cheryl Klein

According to the ads that show up on my Facebook page, I love little vintage dresses and shoes with funky heels (and I should also consider a social work degree and self-publishing). Facebook knows too much, you guys. Other things I like: clearance racks, fingerless gloves, the phrase "a smoky eye," and clothing that reminds me of my early fashion icons--Pippi Longstocking, Punky Brewster and Laura Ingalls.

4 comments

  1. Michael von Braithwaite

    That embroidered “Emma” is incredible! I love how they curate based on visual design.

  2. Thanks to this piece, I feel as though I actually had a physical tour of Marc Jacobs’ book-as-concept store. I appreciate that you hit all the major notes: the collection itself; the organization of that collection; the aesthetic feel of the space; and the fundamental role of the people who run it under the auspices of Jacobs.

    The Meyer Lemons in a Marc Jacobs’ bag anecdote caps the whole tour. That image is going to stick with me all morning.

    Thank you so, so much for this gorgeous and thorough essay!

    (One more thing: Jacobs is having a Fosse moment? I have been intentionally out of the fashion loop for the last six months, so this caught me off-guard. Is that why I’ve been having especially big Fosse twinges this year?)

  3. Yes, I think you are psychically connected to both Bob Fosse and Marc Jacobs. That’s the only explanation.

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