Miranda Culp and Laurelin Gilmore are accustomed to the look of wonder on the faces of the people who stumble into their independent bookshop, Amatoria Fine Art Books.
In recent years the 35-year-old bookstore, nestled within Sacramento’s Boulevard Park neighborhood, was open only intermittently. Known previously as Richard L. Press, Fine and Scholarly Books, the shop operated mainly by appointment, though it was a fixture of the residential area. “Our secret weapon is that the neighborhood didn’t have access,” says Culp. “Every day somebody walks in and goes, ‘I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 10 years and I’ve never been inside!’”
The partners came into ownership in November 2020 “after a series of COVID miracles.” Gilmore, a painter with a library science degree, knew the previous owner, Richard Leon Press, who passed away in November 2020. Culp, an arts writer and yoga teacher, came across the opportunity serendipitously. After Press’s retirement earlier in 2020, the Ohio-based book collector Lawrence Hammar acquired the store and sought help cataloging the extensive inventory of art books. Culp happily answered Hammar’s inquiry, which was sent to her by a friend. Gilmore, too, jumped at the chance to help reorganize, when she happened to drive by and noticed a rare open door. The pair were in awe of the breadth of rare books, ranging from a retrospective of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, to revolutionary periodicals of 1960s photography.
Hammar began to transition the store over to the pair when it became evident that, living out of state, he would not be able to keep it open. “For me,” Gilmore says, “having visited the store when Richard was the proprietor, I recognized that it is an absolute treasure house and it is rare. It would be a travesty to have it go away.” The new business partners say the store is currently open thanks to Hammar’s acute business acumen, “quirky, adorable sense of customer service,” and his willingness to help them in their new roles every step of the way.
They appear comfortable and joyous in their new roles. “It’s hard to have a bad day here,” says Gilmore. She previously made her living primarily through art shows, which are on hold due to the pandemic, and was in search of a backup. One that fuses art and books was the best possible scenario. Culp agrees: “Coming in here every day and bathing in all this beauty and weirdness is just the best.”
In true bibliophile fashion, Gilmore and Culp named the store “Amatoria” (or “book of love”) after the epic poem by Ovid. “We feel really strongly,” Culp says, “that by treasuring these books and helping them find their owners — it’s both a stance and an act of love.”
On a mission to preserve a treasure trove of art books: Gilmore: For (Miranda and me), it’s a gem. We both recognize that this space and this collection in particular was so vital to the creative community in Sacramento. It was really imperative that we do what we could to try to keep it open and make it accessible again. So for us, that’s really been the mission — to make this available to our Sacramento creative community.
Art books, for us, is a very broad term. We have books on architecture, photography, design, textiles, graphic design, commercial design. We have a ton of artists’ monographs. So if people really just kind of know a couple of names that they’re interested in or somebody that they liked in a museum, we can search by that, or by culture, by area, by movement.
On keeping the fading profession of book collecting alive: Culp: There is a sizable, but diminishing community of antiquarian sellers, bookmakers and collectors here in Sacramento. And while neither one of us were experts in that subject, we were pretty determined to learn everything we could about it.
It felt really important, especially now during a pandemic, that some of these deep traditions of civilization stay alive. It felt like our bookseller ancestors and elders bestowed the store on us. People like (the previous owners) Lawrence and Richard know that it’s a diminishing profession. And so when there are people like us who get excited about the prospect of that, they will bend over backwards. They’ll part water, because it means that much to them. These books, they’re far more valuable to them than money.
A collection based in celebrating the rare, the obscure, the strange, the unique: Gilmore: Richard had a really practiced eye for not just art that is beautiful, but artists that are making a difference, doing something different, and that through time have become important because of their risk-taking. So even at the time I think he could recognize that this artist is somebody to watch. And maybe it really was just about kind of who excited him as an art lover, as a kind of art appreciator. That’s what’s here.
Culp: He just had really good impulses, and he clearly loved weird. You have to really love weird in the art book business. His instincts were so good, even if it was just, ‘I like it.’ We have this joke about the way that Richard would price books, because if he liked it, he just put $900 on it to make sure nobody bought it.
Adding to the collection with their own points of view: Gilmore: There are some parts of the collection that we’re very excited to expand on. Some of that is contemporary artists and African American artists, women artists, queer artists. There are a lot of movements that are happening now that we’re interested in expanding into those areas.
Culp: And Middle Eastern women artists. There’s a wave of videographers from the Middle East and they’re just brilliant.
How independent bookstores represent a community hub, simulate real-world experience: Gilmore: I’ve found that the reason why community bookstores in particular are thriving or surviving, even when they’re next door down the street to something like a Barnes & Noble, is that they provide a community hub, even in the middle of a pandemic. And we can’t have a lot of people in the store, obviously, at a time. But when people come here, they’re getting their travel, their museum visits or gallery visits; they’re getting their travel to other countries.
Time to address the bucket (book) list: Culp: My friends who are working in bookstores right now say they’re doing really well under the pandemic. People are coming in and going, “Do you have a copy of ‘War and Peace?’” I mean, (patrons) are probably thinking, this may be the only time in my life I’m going to actually be able to tackle it.
I feel like a lot of people have that complicated impulse. We’re all checking our mortality big time. All the things when you were younger and said, “I’ll get to it later.” I think to a certain extent people are going, “Oh, I better get to it now.”
On turning to tangible books during a digitally dependent time: Gilmore: I think you’re going to reach a breaking point with technology. All of your interaction being through your screen, the experience of walking in your garden or listening to somebody play music in person, you can feel that blossoming. It feels like you’re kind of waking up, and I feel like that’s what happens when you turn your screen off for a while and engage with something physical you can hold and flip through.
For a true bibliophile, somebody who just loves the heft and company (of) books, that’s always going to be something that they enjoy. There’s a famous quote that the vacuum didn’t get rid of the broom. … Obviously, you know, the way that we live our lives now, digital is great. But it doesn’t replace the aspect of the physical touch and receiving of ideas.
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