Berl’s in Brooklyn, passionate about chapbooks and small press poetry

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In the autumn of 2013 a new bookstore opened in New York. The name of the store is Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop and it’s unique – it’s the only bookstore in New York that only sells books of poetry. And if that’s not extraordinary enough – the store focus almost entirely on chapbooks and books from micro- and small presses. Presses like Ugly Duckling, Birds, LLC and Future Tense.

Berl’s is a family business and is run by the married couple Farrah Field and Jared White. They met when they studied poetry writing at Columbia University. Both are published poets. They soon married – even the marriage was a bit literary – and 2011 they started to sell chapbooks and books of poetry from small presses at Brooklyn Flea.

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At Brooklyn Flea they learned everything about selling beautiful but somewhat obscure books to people who might not be the obvious audience for contemporary and alternative poetry. When Field and White had a baby, Rome, they put their Flea market venture on hold while tending for him.

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Field and White had always dreamed of opening a proper bookstore, a space where they could arrange events and exhibit art, but it’s not easy to find affordable and suitable spaces in New York. But by a stroke of luck they found a space in DUMBO, Brooklyn, right below Manhattan Bridge, which is brilliant. There are several publishers, other bookshops and journals in the neighborhood as well – Verso, Melville House, powerHouse Books, P.S. Bookshop, n+1 just to mention a few.

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And quite a few residents in DUMBO and the environs both write and read poetry and attend readings, and European tourists find their way to Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop as well, where they can buy colorful, hand printed, rare, playful and thought provoking chapbooks and books, most of them by American poets.

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The books at Berl’s are meticulously curated and they are displayed as pieces of art, despite the fact that a chapbook might cost as little as $10. At Berl’s poetry is all and we had the opportunity to ask co-founder and owner Jared White a few questions.

You are specialized in chapbooks and books from small presses. Can you explain what makes them so appealing and desirable?

– For us, discovering the vibrant ecosystem of small/micro publishers making chapbooks and books in an independent, do-it-yourself spirit was hugely inspirational to opening the shop. Here is a huge body of really exciting poetry writing being published for the most part under the radar, too diffuse, vast and rapid-paced for most bookstores to keep up with. It seemed a field in which we could really do something valuable and different than other bookshops in bringing a lot of these publications together, making them available and giving them a significant platform (and shelf real estate in our space).

– We struggle to do justice to the enormity of what is published and of course what we have in our shop is only a slice of what is out there and it is always a huge challenge to keep our inventory updated but we do the best we can to rise to the challenge of making a home for this kind of work.

Chapbooks appeal to me because:

– they represent an attempt to create a more personal means of production and to make gatekeepers less exclusionary

– they allow poets to present work in ways that reimagine what books can be or accomplish

– they are handmade, often very beautiful art objects in and of themselves

– they are approachable in that they are often much shorter than a full book-length so they can often be read in a single sitting

– they offer younger or less institutionally supported writers a way of getting their work out there and also a way for people by inventing presses to be able to participate in a conversation about poetry and to connect with writers they admire

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When you begin to explore this part of the poetry scene, it seem rather small, but when you take a closer look, you get the impressions that it’s large and very vital. Could you please tell us a little bit about how the scene have changed and developed? Is it altogether different from the rest of the poetry scene / book market?

– It certainly feels as if there has been an explosion in terms of the number of presses making chapbooks, probably partly fueled by the growth of MFA programs graduating classes of poets every year, and partly by the internet/social media turning local conversations about poetry into national and international communities. My research remains hugely word of mouth driven since so many publications happen in small editions announced only inside networks online though I’m always trying to find new outlets to include in our shop (such as our budget and our limited bookshelf space can allow). I would not describe chapbook publishing as a scene exactly, and certainly poets have been making and distributing their work in chapbooks for ages, but more like the work of many overlapping communities.

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Is it relevant to compare this niche market with vinyl records?

– I sometimes, especially with non-poets, might mention vinyl records or EPs as a loose comparison, in terms of the idea of B-sides or work-in-progress being made available. But obviously the big differences are a) presses are much looser, more DIY operations than most indie record labels b) handmaking a chapbook is a pretty different relationship to materials than sending off a record to be pressed c) the market is so much more about fellow poets in a shared, porous economy of reading and writing than with regards to music where listeners are not so often fellow musicians. They’re both related to passion but I think maybe there’s a bit less value in poetry placed on collecting.

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You know this ecosystem exceptionally well. Could you recommend a few recent books and a few publishers to follow? Are there any current trends that are particularly interesting?

– Off the top of my head, some great US-based include doublecross, dancing girl, graying ghost, horse less, the song cave, ugly duckling presse and so many others. Not sure if I see trends so much as a constant surge of new presses, many coming from other parts of the world. Recently we bought some great new books from Metatron in Canada and Vagabond Press in Australia for instance. And my list of presses that I intend to contact is humongous – the main limitation, even more than budget, is time since we are a small operation and right now I’m working pretty much single-handedly on most of this. Way too many books coming out all the time to make any more than a totally random listing – hope the list I sent in my last email might flag some good writing that I personally enjoyed especially:

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Anne Boyer’s GARMENTS AGAINST WOMEN

Orlando White’s LETTERRS
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Jackqueline Frost’s THE ANTIDOTE
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Carrie Lorig’s THE PULP VS. THE THRONE
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Monica McClure’s TENDER DATA

Could you please tell us a little bit about what you can find and do at Berl’s except from buying chapbooks and poetry from small presses?

– At Berl’s acquiring new chapbooks is an important part of our mission but in general we also have been growing a very expansive collection of poetry from all sorts of presses, including university presses and some large publishers as well. We aim to have a curated collection of books that is diverse and full of compelling writing generally. We have been hosting a lot of events in our shop as well, mostly readings, about 2-3 a week on average, so that is a huge part of our work.

Ola Wihlke

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