Interview and Portrait Michael Mundy
Aaron Hicklin, editor-in-chief of OUT Magazine, is bringing back the act of browsing—and thankfully, not on the Internet. His new project, One Grand Books, opening this week in Narrowsburg, NY, is a bookstore with shelves lined of books curated by some of today’s most celebrated thinkers, writers and artists. Born in England, Aaron has always associated bookstores with small towns; a place you drive to; a place you seek out; not just another place you walk by on your daily route. By proposing the same question to each guest curator: What 10 books would you bring to your metaphorical desert island?—Aaron is framing One Grand Books with variation and intention, but more importantly, he is reviving the idea of slowing down and enjoying the search.
Michael: Aaron, your project, One Grand Books, is officially opening this weekend in Narrowsburg. Tell us, in this day and age, why are bookstores so special?
Aaron: I think bookstores are one of the few stores where you can spend an extended period of time without getting stressed. Most stores, you hit a peak. There’s something about a bookstore that requires you to slow down. Spend time with the very act of browsing a shelf.
Michael: This isn’t going to be an ordinary bookstore, but a highly curated one. Where did you get your inspiration?
Aaron: The inspiration for this oddly came from a wine store called Bottle Rocket in New York. It’s interesting because I like wine, but I’m not a wine expert. I find it has an extremely smart approach to wine because instead of saying these are New World wines, these are American wines, these are French wines, it’s curated by mood and type, which is very helpful for someone who is a bit of a novice. And it’s also great to have someone do all the work for you. It makes you look at wine in a different way and think about how wine might reflect your spiritual state in that moment. So then, I thought, well what if I did that with books?
Michael: But why such a selective store? Isn’t Amazon already selling enough books?
Aaron: I love the idea of a bookstore but I also realized that we were in a moment when the idea of doing anything comprehensively was negated by the web. If you are looking for something really specific, you will find it on Amazon. For better or worse, you will find it there. So the point of a physical bookshop changes when that happens. You don’t need a bookstore to try to be Amazon. It couldn’t be. So instead, what you want is the antithesis of that – something where it’s going to be about discovery and magic. There’s no discovery on Amazon – you go looking for something. Bookstores are different because it’s more about a limited number of titles and not trying to be comprehensive and certainly not trying to do a big sale. It’s like looking at books as a window into the minds and souls of interesting people.
“There’s something about a bookstore that requires you to slow down. Spend time with the very act of browsing a shelf.”
Michael: Interesting people indeed. You have quite a group of curators including actors, writers, directors and political figures.
Aaron: For me, it’s really just a personal preference for people I find interesting and who I think practice their craft well and with commitment and integrity. Those are the people for whom ideas play a huge part. And most of ideas come from books, or art, or movies or music. Those are the big areas where you shape your consciousness – what you watch, what you read and what you listen to.
Aaron: It’s amazing when I look at some of these lists. Of course Ryan McGinley’s books are kind of cyberpunk poet choices. And of course Tilda Swinton’s got Scottish poetry and things that tell you something that you would never get about her from a public persona. There’s nothing there that’s sharp angled and fashion for example. Even though she is this fashion icon, the stuff that you see on her list is really rooted in the landscape that she comes from, Scotland. It’s rooted in a very classic British tradition, that is deeply anarchic, which you realize reflects her own story.
Michael: So, you’re introducing us to these people through books?
Aaron: There’s this British radio show called Desert Island Discs. I love Desert Island Discs; I realized through Desert Island Discs that the best ways of getting somebody to relax and to understand somebody is to ask them the things that mean the most to them. So in that case it’s, ‘Tell me the eight songs that mean so much to you,’ ‘When did you discover them?’ ‘Why does it resonate with you?’ And you get people saying all sorts of things. I don’t think books play quite the same role as music in that way but I think that books do become a kind of biography of someone.
Michael: You seemed very content and at home unpacking boxes of books before our interview. Will you be spending a lot of time here?
Aaron: It’s funny, a lot of people have asked, ‘You’re going to be running the shop yourself?’ Well, that’s the point. That’s actually the whole point. The point isn’t to run a bookshop and then have someone else run it; set it up and check it and see how many books are selling each week. It’s to be here. And there is a spiritual dimension to that. I need to take myself out of the fairly intense and innervating environment of contemporary media, which I enjoy on many levels but I also find increasingly exhausting and challenging. This is an antidote to those challenges because it’s very pure. It’s very pure because the interaction is personal, it’s physical, it’s face-to-face. You’re not operating in a kind of white noise that media operates in. And it’s not about money. Fundamentally for me, it’s not about money. I just realized that I want to be in the store doing this.
“Most of ideas come from books, or art, or movies or music. Those are the big areas where you shape your consciousness – what you watch, what you read and what you listen to.”
Michael: Why did you decide to open your first bookstore in the Catskills as opposed to, say, New York City?
Aaron: I grew up in England and a lot of towns as small as this have great little bookshops. As a kid, anytime I was in any small town, the first thing that I would do is go to a bookstore. So I associate them with small places more than big cities. There’s something about a bookstore in New York that… they’re very important, they’re great. But if you live there, all the time, it just becomes something that is there. You pass it. It’s always going to be there. Whereas communities like this where there isn’t anything else for quite some distance, and for people arriving here for the first time and seeing this, it becomes that magical moment. In a way that it could never be a magical moment in the city because there are other bookstores. You expect them. You go into a bookstore when you need to. I think when you’re here you go into a bookstore because it becomes part of a ritual of your weekend life. In the summer here, I like to go to Robin’s to get that nice bottle of wine, or to the farmers market to get some produce. I think that going to the bookstore becomes part of that ritualized experience of living in the country.
For more information on One Grand Books, visit www.onegrandbooks.com.