L’Ascenseur Végétal Interview: Support Photography Book Stores #2

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“I know the first photograph that left a significant mark on me, to this day, is George Rodger’s picture of the defeated Nuba wrestler carrying the victor”

 

Claude Lemaire runs L’Ascenseur Végétal in Bordeaux, France and stocks both new and antiquarian photography books. With all of these interviews, what I hope to accomplish is to shed light on some of the backbone of our photography scene that does not usually get their fare due. A portion of the reason that booksellers remain invisible is because people assume that the remuneration of sales makes an equal exchange, but the constant work, thin margins and support of these shops should not go unnoticed or unheralded. They spend countless hours spreading the word about new exciting work and keep the larger world interested in what we as creators manufacture. Claude, like many booksellers operates a humble shop that helps to keep photography on the map in his local region, but also on-line.

BF: Claude, II appreciate your willingness to do this and can express some concern at the precarious nature of our collective condition, but also of the commercial condition of selling books at present. Can you give me some background about the shop and how you got involved in photobooks? You are perhaps a photographer yourself? How did you come to opening the shop?

CL: First, thank you so much Brad for doing this in these strange and difficult times we are all experiencing!
About my encounter with photography: although I cannot tell when I first saw the image (in my early 20s), I know the first photograph that left a significant mark on me, to this day, is George Rodger’s picture of the defeated Nuba wrestler carrying the victor.

I am not a photographer myself. I purchased a reflex camera at 22 because I was disappointed in the images that I had made with a small compact camera during a trip to Burkina-Faso. I believe I have been aware of composition, motion, light, foreground/background, etc. pretty early on, and I also was educated to the basics of the darkroom. But I am definitely not a photographer, although I do make images I am proud of once in a while, just as anyone else I suppose…

 

 

I had purchased the Phaidon reprint of Rodger’s “Le village des Noubas”, and a few other books, but my interest in the photobook format started when I moved to the US in 2000. Being alone in a new environment, I had lots of time on my own, which was sort of unusual for me, and I went to a second-hand bookshop near my place (the Outer Sunset in San Francisco) and bought a book on Pictorialism, then one about Stieglitz, the Photo-Secession movement and the 291 gallery, then one about Steichen, etc. I was educating myself about the history of the medium, starting to buy monographs too (a beat-up copy of Michael Kenna’s “Elkhorn Slough and Moss Landing” was the first one) and soon I had to go to a carpenter and get a bookshelf made to fit my small bedroom!

It was still the early times of buying off the Internet, and I remember buying a cheap copy of Dorothea Lange’s “An American Exodus” on Craigslist (ex-lib, no DJ, one missing page) and opening an account on eBay… I got caught in the works and never really stopped buying and selling books since then. When the Phaidon ‘Parr & Badger’ books came out, I was right there on the look out! I got a few interesting ‘recommended’ books for cheap, but did not have the funds to build a real collection.

 

 

I was back in France in 2002, and I was doing computer-related stuff professionally until 2012 when and I needed a change. I moved to the Bordeaux area from the north of France and decided to launch an online bookstore for independent publishers, in French. I had been buying books from English-language bookstores and thought there might be room for a French one (bilingual actually, since I have been translating most of the content in/from English since inception, and the website has a language toggle).

The project launched on the little money I had made selling the apartment I had bought barely 3 years before, a little bit of severance money after quitting my job, and love money from dear friends.
The first books I ever bought for L’Ascenseur Végétal were the ones on the list of the first Aperture / Paris Photo Award in 2012… Bought all of them but one title if I remember correctly! On a side note, I still can’t believe that I did not keep a copy of Witho Worms’ “Cette montagne c’est moi” (Fw: Books) for my own shelves!

The website launched on June 1st, 2013. That year, I spent the opening week of the Rencontres d’Arles handing out flyers! I was very lucky that the Paris Photobook Club (h/t Emilie Hallard & Pablo Porlan) had launched a few months earlier; and I religiously travelled to Paris for each meeting that year, and got to meet a lot of people within the photobook crowd in these meetings, as I was a complete outsider at the time. Emilie and Pablo also created that same year the 3-day “Photobook Fest” during the Paris Photo week, and that was definitely the first stage of the rocket for L’Ascenseur Végétal! I was very lucky, the Photobook Fest was highly appreciated and regarded for the 3 years it was held, and that helped a great deal in spreading knowledge about the online bookstore.

 

 

I operated the webstore from my one-bedroom apartment for 2 years until – after having moved the bed to the kitchen and getting used to the crab walk to move between shelves to access bathroom and exit door – it was obvious I needed to find a storage place for the growing stock of books!

I couldn’t find any rental space that would fit my two main requirements: lockable room if in shared space, accessible 24/7. The situation was getting really complicated, when a photographer friend told me that he was letting go of his studio space. Although I knew from his description that it was much larger than what I was looking for, I made the big mistake of having a look at it… He opened the iron shutter, and it was too late, I new I would say yes despite the folly! Crazy it was, but the space looked so great : 4-meter / 12-feet ceiling, 95 sq m / 1,000 sq ft for the main space (plus storage space), raw limestone on half the wall length, and a large window on the street. So, after a few months of negotiating and paperwork, renovating a bit, and installing, I officially opened the physical store in November 2015. Before I knew it, I had my own ‘real’ bookstore, almost by accident… it was much MUCH earlier than I ever imagined in my project, but there I was! Nothing was really planned, there was so much to do, some parts I had no clue about, and there I was!

From the get-go – and is says so on the sign on the storefront – the space has been a bookstore and an exhibition space. The walls have been dedicated solely to exhibitions; the bookshelves being the delimitation between the public area and the storage area. The first show was with Théo Gosselin, just after the publication of his second book “Sans Limites” with Editions du LIC.
I have worked, and often collaborated with other organizations in Bordeaux dedicated to photography, to organize a program of 6 to 8 exhibitions per year. I am not able to finance the production of the exhibitions, so I am showing works and frames that have mostly been showed elsewhere before.
Managing everything mostly alone (webstore listings and orders, bookstore, book fairs, exhibitions, social media & communication) is very complicated, and I always feel that I am not doing things properly, or how they should be done; and I cannot find the time to apply and ‘prospect’ for public or private funding of the exhibitions or other events.

 

 

Being based in Bordeaux (a population of only 250,000), and considering France is so much centralized around Paris when it comes to the art world, makes me still an outsider in certain respects I suppose… but I like it here, despite the challenges, the ones I am up to, and the ones I am not.

 

“Being based in Bordeaux (a population of only 250,000), and considering France is so much centralized around Paris when it comes to the art world, makes me still an outsider in certain respects I suppose… but I like it here, despite the challenges, the ones I am up to, and the ones I am not”

 

BF: That’s fantastic! I love hearing stories about how a mania eventually evolves into a business. My own collecting did much the same. You get excited, start buying (in my case old photos) and then you want better versions or more versions and you sell the early buys, which are not always great and then before you know it, you have stumbled headfirst into a business whether you wanted to or not. Most of the times with obsession-and you do sound obsessed, the case is that it moves along naturally as opposed to an actual entrepreneurial position as I still think a business in photography-in any form-is perhaps not so wise. In any event, we move along.

 

 

On a side note, I was introduced to Witho Worms, through Taco Hidde Bakker’s book “The photograph that took the place of a mountain “and have been meaning to find a copy since. Thank you for reminding me. I suspect that for better or worse, that Aperture shortlist sells decent books for people, though I have yet to see collectors, sellers or enthusiasts ever agree on their picks. I guess this is from the external judges taste, which I always wonder how they pick those as they never seem to be from the book community. I am digressing.

• How important are the fairs for you? Do you set up in Paris in November? I can’t remember if we had met on the boat or offprint? IT seems like most people selling books make it to ne or the other, though from my interview with Giulia at Micamera, it turns out they do not go.

CL: The fairs are rather important, yes.

– First, as mentioned earlier, the 3 editions of the Photobook Fest during Paris Photo 2013 to 2015 really helped spread the word about L’Ascenseur Végétal!
– On the national or international scene, I only go to Paris during Paris Photo, and to Arles for the opening week of the festival. I would love to go to Unseen in Amsterdam for instance, but it is too far and too complicated: doing it as a publisher you can carry 10-15 copies of 5-8 different titles in your luggage and still make it worth the trip, but as a bookshop, it is just impossible without a car, and I do not own one, so I always need to rent. I also take part in smaller markets and events in Bordeaux once in a while…

 

 

– Then, from a mere business standpoint, I have always at least broken even in Paris and Arles, with one exception in Paris.
– But the most important for me, clearly on a personal level and I believe from a more pragmatic, business-oriented standpoint as well, is meeting the customers, the friends and regular customers, and new ones as well hopefully – who will later visit the website, meeting all the friends and partners in the photobook world I only see (mostly) on these two occasions: the photographers and the publishers from all over the world with whom I only exchange by email and messenger the rest of the year! I suppose this is why these fairs are so important for everyone, this is where we actually meet, right?! But – to your point – I do not think we ever met in the flesh!

– Paris Photo 2019 was different as I ended up not having a pop-up at all, and experienced the 4-day weekend as a visitor; it was a great experience too. Like Giulia from Micamera hinted to in a previous interview in your series, I was able to see more books & people and better of books & people, it was really enjoyable. I had rented a car nonetheless, and drove back to Bordeaux with a full car of new books, much more than on the previous years.

– a side note, Arles this year should be a great experience as L’Ascenseur Végétal will be present in Arles for almost 2 months. The FotoHaus (organised in the same house at 6, Rue de la Roquette by ParisBerlin Fotogroup since 2015) will be open from June 29th to August 23rd, and I agreed to remain with a full selection for the whole run! Looking forward to that, fingers crossed… Testing new things is always thrilling, and I’ve always loved the Arles opening week, so I am really looking forward to this summer, hoping that things become more or less normal again in the meantime.

 

 

• Do you work with certain publishers and do you buy stock ahead to resell or do you work with returnable items? I’m interested in the mechanics of selling the books and I realize different sellers have different options with publishers and artists.

CL: – The way I select and supply books has changed greatly since I opened the Bordeaux bookstore, mainly because the catalogue of L’Ascenseur Végétal has greatly evolved following this change, but not only for that reason.

– Being a pure webstore meant that I was working 90-95% with independent publishers, and ordered directly from them most of the time. Online, your work as bookseller in simply your selection. You can of course push some artists and books through social media, but there is no one-on-one interaction with most customers. The interaction may develop with some repeat customers who may request suggestions, or – in the other direction – suggest and request books.

– Opening a retail store, and having a storefront as a “Librairie Photo”, I decided that I should offer a selection of more “mainstream” books. Most of those would never make it to the website, not because they would be books my online customers would not be interested in, but because they are books widely available from a lot of ‘real’ bookstores, and from Amazon and many online stores. I am talking about books published for instance by Steidl, Nazraeli, Xavier Barral (now “Atelier EXB”) or even Mack: I am now ordering many more titles from these publishers. I am also building a selection of classics (Mapplethorpe, Arbus, Frank, Atget, etc.), buying catalogues of important exhibitions and books by more mainstream photographers, the likes of Raymond Depardon in France for instance: I would never have bought “Depardon, photographe militaire” (Gallimard, 2019) for the website.

 

 

– Had my store been tiny, without the exhibition space, I might have sticked to the “independent” photobooks, but having such a large space, and drawing a somewhat different crowd with the exhibitions, I felt I needed to cater to more “classic” tastes too, for the general public. When applicable, my job is to take people from the mainstream artists and books they appreciate, to the different and broader, richer, and is some ways riskier quality of independent publishing. As I often say – and perhaps stating the obvious – independent publishing (like anything ‘independent’ I guess) is 10x bolder, when it comes to the subjects covered, the way they are covered, bolder in terms of image selection, layout, sequences, bolder in terms of design and materials used, and so forth. In a sense the physical bookstore is a way of broadening the customers’ approach and sensitivity towards photography, and towards the photobook form, putting in front of their eyes, and into their hands, books they would never have been attracted to, or simply seen, in their prior, more traditional relation to the medium. Unless you have a proactive approach, this is much less likely to happen online. Direct interaction is key.

– Also, the way I supply books has evolved because the distribution networks have evolved. This might be specific to France, but many independent publishers I have been working directly with in the first years of operation now have official distributors in France, like for instance Spector or Libraryman.

– This last point has a direct connection to the payment of the books, and the importance of wholesale vs. consignment, and the possibility to return books. Mostly, when I order directly from independent publishers, it is hard wholesale, no returns. And this is also understandable because shipping costs end up being very significant outside of Europe (and sometimes within). On the other hand, when I order from French distributors, I have the possibility to return the books, by law, so it is a ‘soft’ wholesale: I pay for the books, but I can return them (under a set of specific terms) and get credit towards the next order. Then there is the case of pure consignment, which applies almost exclusively to local publishers or self-published photographers. In the end, one of the main problems that I have – and this is strictly a business-management issue I am not good at – is that L’Ascenseur Végétal is constantly building stock, and the freezed assets are always on the rise…

To get back to your point about obsession vs. entrepreneurship, this is definitely where one of my weaknesses lies: as an outsider of sorts, not having been trained or had experienced in business management, I am operating more with a skewed (flawed) internal radar than from an “actual entrepreneurial position”.

BF:Do you collect books yourself? I bet you have a healthy collection of George Rodger by now. Within this question-do you have a fundamental interest in photo-reportage for the store or is there a more general approach to the stock you want to have. What are your thoughts on specializing in certain topics or materials-would it be too niche to be successful to do so?

CL:- It would be a lie to say that I do not collect books; I am the one who inherited of the ‘gatherer’ atavism in my family! However, me and my ‘collection’ of photobooks are on an ‘it’s complicated’ status; mainly because the books prior to moving to the Bordeaux area have been in boxes since 2012. I never had a lot of money to put into photobooks, but I was able to put together some decent shelves, but nothing big. Among the books I am happy to have purchased prior to my adventures with L’Ascenseur Végétal are “Lana” and “Hunter Green” by Terri Weifenbach, a double-signed copy of the first reprint of “Evidence” by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan, the Aperture facsimilé of Eikoh Hosoe’s “Kamaitachi”, Antoine d’Agata’s “Psychogéographie”. I also had purchased a very nice copy of the original 1955 Delpire edition of George Rodger’s “Le village des Noubas”, but sadly I had to sell it, along with the other two titles of the Delpire “Huit” series by Cartier-Bresson and Doisneau and a few other books, to pay rent for the bookstore…

 

 

– I have not had any intention to specialize the bookstore in any way, either online or the physical store. Specializing within the photobook production would be “too niche” like you said, especially for the street store in a small city. I believe my own tastes, which I consider rather on the broader end, do not have such an impact on the selection. I like to be faithful to publishers, so I try to always order new titles (not necessarily all of them though) from the publishers I have great relations with since the beginning of my project (or, now that L’Ascenseur Végétal is almost 7, since they launched). The selection is a combination of that, of things I see discussed online or in newsletters that trigger my curiosity, of customer requests, of obvious “must haves”, and of “hot” titles that seem to be in demand or will soon be. I also take some books that are submitted to me through email requests, but unfortunately I do not always have the time to process those with the necessary time they should deserve.

BF: Do you believe the market (before virus) is strong right now? Do you feel the photobook explosion has somehow changed since 2012 or so?

CL:- First, a sort of disclaimer: I hardly ever take a step back to think about or analyze the larger picture of the “photobook market”, outside of the type of conversation we are holding right now. It may be due to the ‘outsider’ position I feel I still have, or to the fact that I do not handle things in a sufficiently “business-oriented” fashion, but I always feel very hard to form and express an opinion on this topic, or that mine is relevant.

– To be honest, I am not sure I can reply to this question in a well-reasoned manner. Sort of on this topic, I can only provide anecdotal elements: I believe I was lucky to have launched L’Ascenseur Végétal in 2013, at a time when the market was strong, and it was really strong for 2 straight years (for L’Ascenseur Végétal at least), and had me believe I could actually make something of this project. But the opening of the Bordeaux bookstore in the fall of 2015 (as explained earlier, unplanned and unexpected) was in a way to the detriment of the online bookstore: I had less time to list new books, less time to manage and be active on the social media, and the sales of the website in 2016 were clearly lower than 2015 (other factors may have concurred, including possibly the ‘health’ of the general market, but this was definitely the main reason).

 

 

– Managing the online store, the bookstore, the fairs, the social media and the exhibition space on my own has proven to be quite complicated (for me and my organizational skills at least 😉 and I often have to dedicate to one task and put others on the back burner! Consequently, I feel that my ‘practice’ as a bookseller has not been steady enough to make assertive comparisons from one year to the next; I would not be comparing the same perimeters. Over the past 3 years (2017-2019), I have had some periods where I had to put the updates on the website on a slow pace, and/or I have withdrawn a bit from the social media (two things I am trying to fight against…) but overall the online business has been approximately steady.

– About the changes in the photobook market since 2012, the most obvious one for me – and it might have started a bit earlier – is a form of ‘sliding’ in the professions and responsibilities in the supply chain: photographers become publishers (self-publishing, imprints, full publishing houses), and publishers become booksellers (crowdfunding and pre-orders for production, online sales, book fairs).

– What I find great in the photobook world is that there seems to be a solidarity between the different actors, and more and more cooperations are taking place, often in the form of smaller and more local fairs and festivals, workshops, exhibitions, invitations of artists and publishers by institutions, online sharing and synergies, etc. I have not really thought this through, but it comes to me that the interface between the photobook production structures and the public, the customers has seen a decrease in the average granulometry of the events where this little world congregates and interacts. Again, I do not travel a lot, and this is a vision from afar, but I would say it is the case in France. Here I think it is still the exhibition festivals, large and small, that are the driving forces, but more and more often the photobook is associated in one way or another to these festivals.

 

 

– If you want to enlarge the audience for photography and photobooks, I believe it is a good path. But the “leap of faith” of purchasing a photobook for someone in the ‘general public’ who is curious about a photography exhibition once in a while, or intrigued by a specialized photography bookstore, is still hard to take! One thing I have learned in my Bordeaux bookstore, and I find it heartbreaking in a way, is that for the ‘general public’ a photobook is a present; not something you will buy for yourself on a whim. You can buy a scarf, a vase, a cake, a bag on whim, but that does not apply to photobooks it seems. I do not want to put everyone in the same group with a blanket statement, but I have often seen people entering the store out of curiosity be interested in a book and tell me they’d wait for their own birthday, or will offer it to a partner or child or friend…

I remember one woman, who from her appearance and look could probably afford the purchase, deeply moved by Denis Dailleux’s “Ghana” (Le bec en l’air, 2016); she spent a good 10 minutes with the book, talking to me about the strength of specific images… she mentioned her birthday or Christmas, and she left without the book. I was sad for the rest of the day. She never came back.

– In a nutshell, and for a direct answer to your question about the market: the online sales have been roughly steady these past three years for L’Ascenseur Végétal. The Bordeaux bookstore sales are growing slowly as the public of the bookstore gets a bit larger every year, but – here again – the growth rate could probably be better if I were more business-oriented from an “actual entrepreneurial position”. Things are tough for us, the ill-organized, optimist procrastinators!

 

 

L’Ascenseur Végétal

(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm and Claude Lemaire. Images @ L’Ascenseur Végétal)

 

 

 

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