A Radical Book and Music Store Takes Over a Chinatown Gallery
Critic and curator Bob Nickas has refreshed his domestic feng shui by relocating his personal horde to Martos Gallery. And it's all for sale.
View of Amy O'Neill and Virginia Overton, MAY 68, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and MAY 68, New York
Bob Nickas and I have been friends for more than 20 years, but I’ve never once set foot inside his home. I take no offense—the influential curator, critic, and GARAGE contributor’s SoHo apartment is rumored to be packed floor-to-ceiling with stacks of books, catalogues, records, ’zines and more books—stuff he’s been collecting since childhood. In September, Nickas decided to make a gesture toward clearing some space at home by setting up a bookshop, MAY 68, in the front room of Jose Martos’s Chinatown gallery.
GARAGE: How did the idea for May 68 come about?
Bob Nickas: We’re in the front room at Martos Gallery, which was originally meant to be the office of Jose Martos. But when he decided to be a little more behind-the-scenes, to have more privacy, the room was empty and he asked me if I’d like to organize a bookshop there. I thought we should have books and records, and that we should also show art each month. Jose wanted the shop to be seen as independent of the gallery, so we only show artists who aren’t represented by Martos. So far we’ve shown works by Wayne Gonzales, Ryan Foerster, Amy O'Neill, Virginia Overton, and Josh Smith. We recently installed Tantra-inspired paintings by Lisa Beck, and in February we'll be showing works by Arnold Kemp, and in March, a new wall painting by Jessica Diamond.
What’s on the shelves?
There are art and photography books, a bit of theory and art history—particularly as it relates to activism—political titles, books on film and music, and whatever else interests me. The more rare, out-of-print, and unexpected books come from my library and the records are from my collection.
How long have you been collecting all this?
I've been buying records since I was 10 or 11, starting with 45s that I bought at Woolworths, and have been voracious about books ever since I came to New York and started writing, so that's more than thirty years of building a library.
What inspired the name MAY 68?
The events of May 1968—the year of global revolt and the month in which energy and attention crystallized at that time in the streets of Paris—have a strong parallel for us now. I was also aware that the 50th anniversary of the events of May 1968 will take place in 2018, about halfway through the run of our one-year project. Quite a few people who come in aren't aware of the significance of the name, so we point out some of the books we have on hand that are related, Situationist titles for example, and share a little history lesson, which is interesting for us, too—to see how people respond.
Is this your first foray into retail? How do you like it?
It is the first time that I’m a shopkeeper, and it's fun even as it's time-consuming. I'm not here every day because I need to be home writing and working on shows, and I still go out to buy books and records, though now with an actual purpose.
What's the price range?
From $5 to $450, but nothing at the top of the higher end ever sells.
Which books/records have been crowd-pleasers?
That's hard to say, since I don't know that we have a crowd to please, and we mostly only have a single copy of anything. We did have multiple copies of a great recent series: San Francisco Rave Flyers, Los Angeles Rave Flyers, and New York Rave Flyers. Reggae Christmas albums were popular over the holidays, as were vintage issues of Physique Pictorial—I guess those were, appropriately enough, stocking stuffers.
You’re the founding editor of index magazine. Everything here is so carefully chosen—does May 68 feel like editing?
It is similar. Choosing books I'm thinking in much the same way: Who are the subjects, the writers, the photographers, how do the images go together. That said, I can’t stand this overdone idea of a well-curated anything. That makes a bigger thing out of it than need be. I also dislike any reference to it as a pop-up shop. If I had a well-curated pop-up shop, I would have stuck my head in an oven by now.
And after all this de-accessioning, how is your apartment looking?
There's definitely more room to walk around. At least it looks more orderly.