San Francisco’s Underground Bookstores: Et Al. Books
For those who are artists, collectors, or generally curious people, Et al. Books houses a compelling collection. Et al.’s Mission location is both art gallery and bookstore, an industrial backdrop to the rich assortment of vintage titles, new fiction, and rare art books. Et al.’s second location is an elusive art gallery in Chinatown, nestled in the shadows of neighboring liquor stores and laundromats. Stumbling on either location is an experience straight out of a Haruki Murakami novel, disorienting and thrilling given the unique display.
Married couple Jackie Im and Aaron Harbour are the minds behind Et al. Books, along with curator Kevin Krueger. I spoke to Harbour about sourcing books, ‘aspirational peers’ in the literary art world, and last Friday’s event with genre-bending writer and friend of Et al., Dodie Bellamy.
What inspired this venture?
AH: Jackie Im and I are book people through and through, reading and hunting and collecting books constantly, and the pandemic only focused our efforts. Over the last year and a half, we would spend our lone day off together—We both have full time jobs along with running the two Et al. galleries—on long bus/train trips to find books all across the Bay Area. When we had the chance to take trips outside of the Bay, whether to LA or New York or Portland, we would make time amidst seeing tons of art to visit used bookstores. It was a not so secret dream of Im’s to open a bookstore, and we stumbled on the opportunity in the form of a recently vacated backspace in our Mission gallery. We bit the bullet and went for it, committing to construction, book shelves, and acquiring inventory to make it a reality.
Who are the people behind Et al.? Who are the organizing actors?
AH: Et al. is a gallery project directed by Im and I, along with Kevin Krueger. It began as a curatorial project of ours, then a physical gallery in Chinatown, which opened in 2013 with the help of Facundo Arganaraz. We all were artists; all except Im still are.
What is the relationship between the gallery and the bookstore? How do the two spaces inform each other?
AH: The galleries are run by Krueger, Im, and myself. Our Mission location had a large back area that became available and we split it. Half will become a showroom/storage area (in progress), and the other half is the bookstore, run by Im and I.
How do you source your books? Where do you source from?
AH: Et al. Books has both new and used books. The new books come from a mixture of large distributors and individual small publishers. Our used books come from things that Im and I find, and books brought in by a trio of collectors/sellers who consign to us. We source books from everywhere: garage sales, thrift stores, other bookstores, collections sold to us, and books sold to us by individuals.
What do you look for when selecting books? Any artists or writers you always seek out?
AH: We look for books that we ourselves would or already own. When asked to describe what we carry, we often say ‘New and used fiction and art books, plus things artists would be interested in’ which may just as well be ‘things we are interested in.’ We definitely have an affinity for contemporary art, especially not by the usual white men that crowd most art sections at bookstores (though we’ve plenty of that stuff as well).
Im is a heavy reader of new fiction; our new books fit what she has or will read. She has a particular fondness for female writers who don’t typically get a lot of shine: Penelope Fitzgerald, Shirley Hazzard, Barbara Pym, Dawn Powell, Deborah Eisenberg and others; and small publishers such as Fitzcarraldo Editions, And Other Stories, Dorothy Project, and Wave Books. I’m always looking for more speculative fiction: Le Guin, Butler, Dick, Lem, Strugatsky, things published by The Women’s Press Science Fiction or Sternberg.
Can you tell me a little bit about Journal.fyi and your vision for it?
AH: Journal is an art blog, inspired by Contemporary Art Daily, Art Viewer, Ofluxo, Daily Lazy, Tzvetnik etc. I used to write a ton of reviews as ‘Curiously Direct.’ Not long after it ran out of steam, I started Journal as a place to collect a version of what I found interesting in the world without comment. There was original writing produced by some great contributors as well as myself, but for now the website is in a bit of a holding pattern. I still use the insta to record what I see, though, and on a week like last week in New York, that can be quite a bit.
Yes, you recently returned from New York. Any exciting finds to share?
AH: Travel is very important to us. Im was born and raised here, and I’ve been here since 1998. We love it here, but the Bay Area is a relatively small scene, so New York is a vital place to recharge and see things we’ve spotted on, say, Instagram or an art blog, in person. The top floor of the New Museum Triennial, the Milton Graves solo show at Artists Space, work in galleries by Eli Ping, Libby Rothfeld, Reynaldo Rivera, David L. Johnson, Diane Simpson, Gregory Kalliche, Narumi Nekpenekpen… So much was inspiring. And the bookstores: Left Bank, Topos, Mast, East Village Books, Codex, Aeon. When we do art things, we think of the galleries we love as ‘aspirational peers.’ These spots are the book version of aspirational peers.
Tell me about last Friday’s event with author Dodie Bellamy. Is Bellamy a friend of the shop?
AH: Friday was a celebration for the release of Dodie Bellamy’s new book Bee Reaved, and the reissue of her first book, The Letters of Mina Harker. It was more of a party than a traditional literary event. There was no interview, no question and answer. Instead, we hung out together and Bellamy read a selection. Bellamy is a friend. Regardless, it was generous of her to spend her time with us.
What’s next for Et al. Books?
AH: Always more. Next up is an untitled surf show/shop in our Chinatown space opening November 13, then an exhibition/retrospective with the LA-based fashion label 69 in our mission space on November 20 – Two shows that stretch the definition of the gallery in new ways for us. Then an art fair in Miami, a new year, more shows, more art fairs, more books… then who knows. We’ve been open for almost a decade somehow, despite never establishing a firm collector base or easy relations with our local institutions. Et al. means the world to us. This bookshop further blurs the lines between our lives and our project.