A tale of two booksellers
For Big Ego Books, a bookstand that dispatches rare volumes from a Sydney car park, books acquaint us with the joys of pop-culture ephemera and serve as the best possible portal to strange, alternative worlds.
The BIG EGO bookstand—the physical one with volumes you can smell and touch and flip through—is open on weekends from 1pm to 6pm, or at other timeslots by appointment. For out-of-towners (it’s in Sydney), the easiest way to reach it is by train, disembarking at Kings Cross Station. From there, it’s a seven-minute walk to the council-run Kings Cross Car Park on Elizabeth Bay Road, past all the suburb’s sad duality: a smattering of still- remaining strip clubs fronted by flickering neon and security guys, past bland symbols of urban gentrification that mask backstreet flophouses, past the green biota of a smallish park. Once at the parking station, you descend the ramped entryway, flanked by painted red handrails, turn right, and there it is. BIG EGO.
In the early 2000s, this might have been a weird place for a tiny, artist-run bookstore. But in 2011 Alaska Projects launched its exhibition program a few levels below, taking up a 5×5 metre project space and occasionally spilling into elevators and stairwells. In this windowless world, audiences experienced works in concrete dampness or dark summer heat. According to BIG EGO’s founders—Raquel Caballero and Emily Hunt—it was Alaska Projects’ Sebastian Goldspink who helped them procure a slice of the site for bookselling last year; a physical accompaniment to their website and Insta-marketing. “It’s so BIG EGO to be in a car park,” says Hunt.
While BIG EGO does not exclusively stock artist books—or even books about art—its founders met at art school, are practising artists, and have a nuanced understanding of books beyond their verbal structure: as forms, as physical objects. Much of their working lives have been spent in second-hand bookselling, or with printed matter. (Between 2006 and 2009 they published the super-kitsch, humorist title DUKE, a satire of fashion magazine tropes. It was largely funded by dance-offs between artists.) The duo’s newest enterprise involves a tightly edited, but occasionally ad hoc catalogue of rare and hard-to-find material. With an especially pop-cultural bent, it spans art, photography, architecture, craft and erotica, as well as the cloak-and- dagger category: ‘Trust Us’.
Some guiding selection principles exist. A BIG EGO book cannot be Taschen-published (“the layouts are bad now”). It might be a table-topper, but isn’t text-dense or recondite. It doesn’t stray into art theory or philosophy. Kitsch is fine, sometimes (the riotous Kitsch Deluxe didn’t make the cut, Snoopy in Fashion did.) Any covers that don’t deliver a one- two knockout punch are thrust into the reject pile and resold to other shops for credit, as are books that feel forced or mawkish. Australiana tends to bode well: books with a national bent on heritage pubs and pub-crawls, graffiti, home décor, the nude body.
A “hot” book might be Jan Wampler’s All Their Own: People and The Places They Build, profiling untrained builders and their ornamental dream homes. Caballero joyously dubs it “extreme outsider art—art you can live in!” A hot book is Rizzoli’s Folk Art in Europe and Andy Warhol’s Party Book. It is Black Woman: Photographs by Tony Currin, Good and Bad Hair: Photographs by Bill Gaskins, Lost Kingdoms by Paolozzi, Maison Martin Margiela: 20 The Exhibition, and Ornamentalism, an unassuming source book celebrating maximalist thinking. A scorching topic right now is soft sculpture.
“We like finding something no one’s got, not IDEA Books or November Books or World Food Books,” says Hunt. “With old books, we’re mainly interested in the condition. We know how to clean them, and we plastic wrap them so we can bring them back to life. We do not use sticky tape, as it sweats over many years, instead scoring the plastic covering so it hangs over. The saddest thing is when you come across a book that’s mouldy—when the pages are stuck together, when water [alters the shape]. Or a book with no dust jacket.”
The dominion of used bookselling is cutthroat, inclement and, like many industries, male-dominated. It involves scouring, handling, rehandling, appraising and hedging bets, all the while looking over your shoulder. A good merchant immediately knows what a book is worth, though BIG EGO often spy smug competitors discarding scarce pearls, unaware of aesthetic micro-trends. While London’s IDEA Books has its instant sell-outs—Alan Mead’s Skinhead Girl, Collier Schorr’s Contacts—Caballero and Hunt’s strength is in locating maverick volumes for artist research. For Hunt’s own practice, which will send her to Berlin on residency next year, 20kg of books in tow, she’s consulting dense tomes on the French decorative arts and 16th century engraving; for BIG EGO, she’ll pick something less recherché: a slim, rambunctious title on retail window displays-come-installation-art-manual.
During their weekly sourcing trips, the founders have feuded once. Rummaging through a local literature den, Caballero spied “a fluke” and couldn’t quite believe it: the almost never-seen A Book About Australian Women from 1974. The photographs are by Carol Jerrems, a Melbourne-born photographer who died at 30. “I felt like my heart stopped. Every international bookseller wants it. It was in the Australiana section and marked $10; it should have been in a rare book cabinet. It’s so valuable. You can’t find it online. Not AbeBooks. Not eBay. Not anywhere. I think they’re all in the hands of collectors.” Jerrems’ significance, Hunt explains, was evidently lost on staff. “It’s funny—if you worked at this bookshop and you’d never heard of it, you’d look it up, find [no other copies online], assume it was worthless … But if you’ve never seen a book, you need to do heavier research, keep digging, find who’s written about it.”
They squabbled over whether to sell it. In her celebratory SMS to Hunt, Caballero unintentionally insinuated the rare paperback was for BIG EGO; she actually wanted it for her private collection. Things got tense. Eventually, they agreed the next copy they found would be sold; that some things matter more than wads of cash. Callabero has been reading A Book About Australian Women in bed. “I don’t want it to end. And I don’t want it to end up, unread, locked in someone’s cabinet.”