Interview: The Paris Review

William Corbett. "The Beginning of Granary Books: An Interview with Steve Clay." The Paris Review. Feb. 1, 2016. 

Last September, Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library opened “The Book Undone: Thirty Years of Granary Books,” an exhibition celebrating Columbia’s purchase of the Granary Books archive. “It’s difficult to fully describe the range and impact of Steve Clay’s Granary Books,” wrote Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress. “Beginning in 1985 he has concocted a mix of poets, artists, printers and craftspeople whose work defines an era and fundamentally shapes our understanding of the artists’ book.”

Granary Books began in Minneapolis, but when Clay first visited New York in 1986, he was quick to see an opportunity. “I came to do a one-week summer class in Columbia’s Rare Book School,” he remembered when we spoke in his Manhattan loft, “my first time in New York. Just coming to the city, getting off the bus at Port Authority, that was it.” Three years later, Clay arrived in New York to stay. After looking for a space on the Lower East Side and Soho to start a bookstore, he joined forces with the poet and bookseller David Abel. I asked him to talk about those first years of Granary Books.

We found 636 Broadway, doing it together with no formal plan. On the tenth floor you could display books, artist’s books, that you couldn’t on the ground floor. I lived there on the couch for months, took showers at David’s on Thompson Street. Milk carton on the window ledge. No kitchen. David knew a lot of people, perfect for a shy guy like me. Dick Higgins of Something Else Press came into the store and so did the poet Jerome Rothenberg, who became and remains essential to Granary. We put on a retrospective show of Something Else Books. Higgins gave me great advice on how to deal with the projects people who came to the store suggested—You’re going to have to find a really nice way to say no.

Granary had published a few broadsides and items in envelopes in Minneapolis, and while we had books by Jane Brakhage, Jonathan Williams, and Paul Metcalf well under way before New York, we didn’t think of ourselves as book publishers. We displayed and sold fine press and artists’ books and mounted shows of books and book art. The books we published happened as if in a dream. In the fall of 1989, I went to the Frankfurt Book Fair looking to meet people and buy books. I met the German artist Barbara Fahrner, who had a booth at the Fair, and I was blown away by her work and attitude and invited her to do a show in our gallery space. She came to New York, stayed on the couch and put up a show of her drawings. One day walking down Prince Street, just talking, Barbara said, Wouldn’t it be great to do a book with John Cage? We immediately ran into Stephen Lowy, who worked with Cage. ...

Read the rest of the interview at The Paris Review.