Monday, October 11, 2010

Exhibitor Spotlight: Vamp and Tramp Booksellers

A look behind the scenes with Bill and Vicky Stewart, proprietors of Vamp & Tramp, Booksellers.

Kelly: What’s the story on Vamp & Tramp...what do you do, how long have you been around, what’s your niche or specialty, and anything else you’d like us to know?

Vamp & Tramp: We began Vamp & Tramp, Booksellers, LLC in 1995, selling modern firsts, mainly 20th-century literary and mystery first editions. This was in the early days of internet bookselling. We had a by-appointment site, which no one visited, and tried every way we could think of to sell books – none very successful. Three or four years later, I stumbled across Ron King's Circle Press edition of Antony & Cleopatra, and was hooked. We began carrying more and more contemporary fine press and artists' books. At about that time, we opened an open shop in Birmingham, with modern firsts, artists' books, fine press books, children's books, Alabama history books – anything we could think of to sell and pay the monthly rent. In December 2003, we had run out of money to lose, and were presented with a chance to acquire Califia Books.

Vicky and I decided to put our time, energy, and resources into what really excited us – contemporary fine press and artists' books. In 6 weeks we closed our open shop, divested ourselves of 4,500 more or less rare books and art works (by the end, we were half art gallery and half book gallery), and took to the road. The acquisition of Califia meant mostly contacts with many new (to us) book artists and access to some hitherto unplumbed institutional buyers. And because of the nature of the books – the physical aspects being so central – we decided that the only way to do this successfully and in a way ethically would be to take the books to the potential customers. Besides, the road trip aspect was fun, or seemed as if it would be fun. So while we did is a sense acquire Califia, we incorporated parts, namely artist and customer contacts, into what we were already doing. What really changed for us was the chance to devote ourselves full time to driving the books across the country.

Kelly: What do you look for in an artist’s work when you’re considering representing them for consignment?

Vamp & Tramp: Our first criteria tends to be what we refer to the as the WOW factor. The not-so-cute names is a distillation of what Bill was feeling when he saw that first Ron King book – wow, wow, wow, just wow. It’s an excitement, an electricity, a visceral sense of contact and connection. This doesn’t necessarily mean a big wow. There are all kinds of wows. Both of us don’t have to experience the wow connection with the book but at least one of us. Next we have to believe we can place it with a collection. Sometimes we are very attracted to a work but realize that we are probably not going to be able to place it. Although nominally we represent fine press and artists’ books, the majority of our placements are based on subject content. We place far more books because of their content than because of anything else.

Kelly: Is there anything in particular that an artist can do to help you be in a position to better sell or offer their work?

Vamp & Tramp: An artist should have not only a general artist statement but a statement about the specific work. A back-story is always helpful – why the work came about, how it developed. It doesn’t have to be pages and pages; just something that will better help us and the collector to understand more about the book. These stories help immeasurably in helping others connect with the work, and open the door to possible purchase. For us, it helps if the back-stories are written. The older we get the harder it is to remember all of the details.

Kelly: Can you give us an example of the kinds of things going on with Vamp & Tramp this fall – perhaps things you’re particularly excited about?

Vamp & Tramp: Our fall travel schedule is usually busy and this year more so. We’ll be on the road almost continuously from Labor Day until Thanksgiving: we’ll be across the US to San Diego, up the coast to Seattle, back to Birmingham, to Toronto, and then to the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states (on the trip that will bring us to Pyramid Atlantic). One of the fun things we get to do is spread the word about book arts and artists’ books. This comes in the form of presentations as well as new exhibition and book fair venues. In October we will be participating in a book fair in Toronto. While this is an antiquarian book fair we hope to make contact with collectors and collections that we can introduce them to the work of the artists we represent. This is our first foray into Canada so we are really looking forward to going across the border.

Kelly: What are you looking forward to seeing or doing at the Pyramid Atlantic Book Arts Fair?

Vamp & Tramp: We always look forward to seeing old friends and making new ones. Feeling the energy of the artists always reinvigorates us.

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