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Shelf Life

Culture Watch
Heywood Hill created this bespoke library for jeweler Jessica McCormack in her London townhouse.

The art world has long relied on seasoned, discreet advisers to help collectors build intelligent holdings that reflect their personal passions. In publishing, a similar service has emerged from a cadre of high-end experts around the world: bespoke book buying. A well-read wrangler will handpick titles for a client’s custom library that reflects their particular—be it oenophile, architecture geek or equestrian obsessive—before carefully installing the volumes at the client’s home or office.

It’s a rarefied skill, a throwback to the 19th century, when the contents of a wealthy man’s library flagged his education and sophistication.  “There’s a bit of a backlash against the ubiquity of digital life,” says London bookseller Nicky Dunne. “There’s something refreshing about opening a book, and spending some time in a library; it’s a very stimulating place to be.”

We spoke with three bespoke booksellers about their services and experiences.

Heywood Hill, London
Heywood Hill owner Nicky Dunne’s most elaborate private library commission (so far) happened by chance—it was thanks to a spontaneous decision by Nina Flohr, daughter of VistaJet founder Thomas Flohr, to walk into his small bookshop nestled in London’s tony Mayfair. Her father hired Dunne, one of London’s most respected booksellers, to build a 3,000-strong bespoke collection that examined how Modernism defined the arts of the 20th century, then asked him to ship the entire haul to the family’s Swiss home and install it in situ.

Dunne estimates he’s tapped to build up to 15 private libraries like this each year. He charges nothing more than the retail price and shipping. With each client, he first holds a preliminary briefing to discuss and spec the project, before scouring shelves for titles. For jeweler Jessica McCormack, this involved sourcing books on two disparate topics: her twin passions of riding and gemstones.

Dunne says that almost one-third of his custom customers are stateside. “We just put 300 books into a property in the Hamptons, a nice selection of classic English children’s books. I think the client was fed up with the glossy, boring content-light books she saw in every one of her friends’ houses.”

 

Juniper Books, Boulder, Colorado
Thatcher Wine began selling rare books as a hobby, moonlighting from his day job as a startup CEO in 2001. After he was left unemployed by the bursting tech bubble, Wine ditched dot coms for first editions of Charles Dickens without regret.

Since then, the bookseller has overseen more than 150 custom libraries, personally steering the service by flying to meet with clients, learning their hobbies and consulting with interior designers and developers over installation (Juniper-curated libraries cost between $150 and $750 per foot). One satisfied client is Wine’s childhood pal, Gwyneth Paltrow, whose libraries at her homes in New York, Los Angeles and London he’s created.

Wine is known for his nimble resourcefulness, as when another client called in a panic. “She said, ‘I went to high school with this author, who is coming to visit me and I haven’t seen her in 20 years. I have to pretend I’ve read all her books—can you get me copies that look like they’ve been read?’” Wine sourced second-hand books that were especially battered.

Juniper’s services also include jacket design, where he creates custom covers for books. A specialty of Juniper’s involves turning a library wall into one giant photograph pieced together across the spines of the books. “It transforms the shelves into a quirky artwork, like the wall-sized image of the Brooklyn Bridge devised for one New York-based client. His other rooms have Picasso and Damien Hirst, and the library has a unique photograph spanning the shelves,” says Wine.

 

Artbook, New York City
The aptly named Artbook is the foremost specialty distributor of art and design books stateside, running the bookshops of New York City’s MoMA PS1 and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, among others. Collectors keen to ensure their library is of the same caliber as the artwork on their walls can tap the publisher’s services to build one.

Whether a client wishes to build a general art book library or one that  focuses on a particular subject, Artbook builds to suit. One installation, according to the company’s Luke Brown, was a $20,000 project in a penthouse duplex loft in Soho, New York, which ran 30 feet along one wall. The titles were chosen to reflect the client’s passions—a nod to his watch collection with a copy of the limited edition “Patek Philippe Steel Watches,” and a design title referencing the apartment’s Donald Judd shelves. “The client loved the selection so much, he asked us to install a second, smaller library valued at about $5,000 in his bedroom,” says Brown.

Artbook specializes in recently published works. The company is also able to source out-of-print and rare art, photo, design and architecture books, as well as artist’s books and limited editions via its close links with dealers such as Los Angeles-based Arcana. The minimum charge for custom work is $2,500, for which Artbook’s offers a starter library—say 75 or so books—on a client’s key passions that can form the core of his or her collection.

 

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