In Pursuit of the Rare and Wonderful

There are some book experiences that digital facsimiles will never replace and most of those are visual
Harper Levine’s store and gallery space on Newtown Lane in East Hampton offers a well-edited selection of photography books, art books, and literature, as well as prints, records, and rare documents. Morgan McGivern

   Anyone pursuing a life in books in this digital age has to pause to consider the consequences. An entire generation has come of age learning to question the value of books or not even considering their tactile permanence.
    Still, there are some book experiences that digital facsimiles will never replace and most of those are visual. In the case of the photography books that Harper’s Books specializes in, Harper Levine said photographs are inextricable from that printed form.
    “People who don’t even realize there are rare photo books are just stunned when they begin to understand that the best way to view the history of photography is through its books, not through its prints. That’s sort of the raison d’etre of being a rare photo book dealer,” he said recently at his store and gallery space on Newtown Lane in East Hampton.
    The store is a mix of rare and popular photography books, uniquely signed or inscribed literary works, and rare or one-of-a-kind artist books. On any given day, a customer can walk in and find an original set list by Kurt Cobain from a Nirvana concert, particularly rare because Cobain never wrote the band’s set lists; an original Patti Smith journal, or a Richard Prince book jacket sculpture he made for a copy of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”
    There are books with art in them and books further embellished by artists after publication with drawings or other jottings. Old vinyl record albums are on display, particularly those designed by artists such as Andy Warhol. In all, it is a colorful amalgamation of quirky treasures with an appeal that is irresistible to a relatively select few.
    Recently the store has given itself over to unusual and sundry items from its basement archives, which Mr. Levine purchased from Glenn Horowitz, his neighbor two doors to the west, when he sold the business he operated in this space to Mr. Levine a few years ago. In December, Mr. Levine had an event he called Harper’s Bizarre with refreshments and the D.J. Carlos Lama providing music, to celebrate the holidays and invite his friends and clients to purchase books, prints, and other items at a much friendlier price point than the $35,000 prints he might otherwise be selling.
    The sale was such a popular draw that he has kept much of the remaining merchandise on display for anyone who might want “a really cool book for $20. . . . With so much attention in the art world given to striving for the blue chip stuff, which we have, it was gratifying to find people with piles and piles of books so excited to buy regular books, to see so much passion for it instead of the rare books we usually sell.” Plus, he said, it was a really fun party.
    The storefront draws serious collectors or casual perusals of the merchandise year round, but particularly in the summer when the likes of former president Bill Clinton or his daughter, Chelsea Clinton, Richard Prince, or other notable South Fork residents and visitors may drop by.
    Much of his business, however, is conducted online, where he recently had his big annual sale to clear the decks and make way for more inventory. “It’s good to have a sale.” Being a book dealer is a noble profession, he said, “but we’re called booksellers for a reason. A lot of people in my business started out as collectors and it’s very difficult for them to part with their material, or they have a hoarder’s mentality,” but he wants to sell his books, primarily so he can buy more.
    “I’m always looking to travel to buy collections of books or to buy art or photographs,” he said. As the leading seller of rare Japanese books in the United States, he travels to Japan once a year to “hit the streets and hang out with my Japanese bookseller friends.” He also goes to Europe two to three times a year, including to Paris Photo, a November fair specializing in contemporary and historical photography. He participates in the New York Antiquarian Book Fair and the San Fran­cis- co Antiquarian Book, Print, and Paper Fair.
    While he may buy and sell many items online, “I find the best things privately. There is nothing like the relationships I’ve made traveling, in terms of buying books.”
    His wife, Marianna Levine, a writer who is working on a special project at the store, stopped by during the conversation. While it sounds like a great life, she said, her husband works seven days a week most of the year. She was happy to be working temporarily in the store just to have some time to spend with him.
    The couple came to live here full time after their daughter was born. Mr. Levine had been coming to Amagansett, where his parents had a house, since the 1980s. Ms. Levine, who grew up in Hawaii, was happy to be near the beach and liked the artistic and literary heritage here. They live in a house in Sag Harbor where their daughter, Sarah, is in junior high at Pierson.
    Mr. Levine said he had two types of ideal clients. One is a major collector of art or photography, “someone who hasn’t understood prior to meeting me that they also want to own the books that represent the artist that they collect or art form that they love.” The other is a wealthy artist who loves books and wants to own interesting things or things they can use in their own art.
    “When you tell people you have a bookstore, they have this vision of an English guy in a tweed coat smoking a pipe and sounding like Hugh Grant,” he said. But, “the world of being a book dealer or a gallery owner is constantly hustling to keep looking for new stuff, have a sale, then have to find more things to sell for the next big sale. It’s a great ton of fun and I wouldn’t want to do something else, but it’s not this genteel life.”