On the front table at Bedford Avenue’s independent bookstore, Spoonbill and Sugartown Booksellers, Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird’s alterna-science volume, “The Secret Life of Plants,” rubs bindings with Yoko Ono’s manual of strange tasks, entitled “Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions and Drawings,” and “Wabi Sabi,” Leonard Koren’s zen guide to imperfect beauty. “B is For Beer,” Tom Robbin’s children’s book, squats next to Herbert L. Edlin’s craftsman’s guide, “What Wood Is That?” (complete with wood samples). Just a few volumes away is Jack Monin’s highly popular (and educational) “Anal Pleasure and Health.” Populated by obscure design books, resuscitated (revived and illustrated) reference books, obscure philosophy tomes, and super-niche bestsellers, the table is a testament to Spoonbill’s commitment to presenting the community with more elevated and varied offerings than your average page-peddler.
The store, which will celebrate its tenth anniversary this November, was originally conceived as a vendor of used art books, until childhood friends and co-owners Miles Bellamy and Jonas Kyle realized there simply were not enough of these books readily available to fill an entire store. What they cultivated instead is a unique combination of used and new offerings; their shelves housing carefully selected antique volumes and underappreciated works pulled from the backlists of popular publishers.
“There are a lot of backlist books that are really great—books that Borders and Barnes and Noble don’t feature. “The Secret Life of Plants,” for example, has been in print for 35 years, and if you put it out, people will buy it,” says Kyle.
With a focus on the visual and graphic arts, photography, and creative source material, they have managed to position themselves as the ideal reference house in a neighborhood full of artists and creative types. “Artists don’t necessarily want art books, they want books with interesting imagery,” Bellamy remarks.
If you walk into Spoonbill with a specific title in mind, there’s a very good chance you won’t find it. The stock in the store is selected by a handful of employees, all guided by personal taste and whim. Spoonbill doesn’t house a travel section or a science section, but there is a cooking section, “just because,” says Bellamy. None of the areas of the store are labeled, though in 2001 there was an entire cabinet devoted to a “Red Section,” full of books that had no connection to each other aside from the color of their covers. Spoonbill carries an $85 book on iconic indie rock group “Sonic Youth,” a $350 collaborative objectzine called “Tiwimuta,” and “The Cunt Coloring Book,” $8.95 (one of their consistent bestsellers), but they don’t carry new copies of “The Fountainhead” or “A Tale of Two Cities.”
“I’ve had people tell me they intentionally walk on the opposite side of the street to avoid temptation,” says Bellamy.
Both raised in Manhattan and born to artist parents, Bellamy and Kyle met at Bronx Science when they were fourteen, and immediately bonded over their love of literature. Books were romantic objects—the center of all social activities. Instead of getting together at rock shows on the weekends like other kids their age, the two friends would take blankets up to a rooftop and read poems, books strewn everywhere. “We were the nerdiest of them all,” Kyle boasts.
After Bellamy’s father Richard Bellamy, a prominent figure in the art world, passed away in 1998, Kyle received a call from his friend asking for help building shelves in a new bookstore venture. The two became partners shortly thereafter and, abandoning their initial plan to open a store in Manhattan, they landed in 1999 in the location on Bedford Avenue they still inhabit today.
Though the friends share many similarities (“In some ways, I think we’re both frustrated authors,” Kyle says.) Bellamy and Kyle represent the yin and yang of independent bookstore ownership. Kyle is the businessman, willing to stock the store with bouncy balls and pig catapults to help keep the business afloat. He is happy when the bookstore is overflowing with books, less concerned with order and more with the energy of the affair. He shares with Miles a commitment to buying out of the back of the publisher’s catalogs, but is still tempted to carry authors and titles that others in the store deem as “borderline too popular,” like Malcolm Gladwell or Miranda July, or even Twilight. He knows that when “everyone in the neighborhood thinks Werner Herzog is the last noble savage,” it’s worth it to carry the man’s diaries, and to put the books by the register. He talks about how bookstores used to be like stationery stores. “It’s not romantic to sell postcards and moleskins, but they sell really well,” adding that the hand shadow puppet cards are the bestsellers in the whole store. He knows bookstores can be intimidating and doesn’t want his customers to feel “imperiled in their intellectualism.”
Bellamy is the purist, more definitively committed to the preservation of his initial dream—to nurture a high-end, arts-focused bookstore. He favors obscure titles and resurrecting old illustrated books from the dead. An organizational junkie, he can’t walk past a table stack without straightening it, occasionally slipping a selection he doesn’t care for under a stack of one he does. Though he is in favor of carrying certain contemporary authors like Kazuo Ishiguro and Jonathan Lethem (another onetime classmate of Bellamy’s), he generally resents his back table of bestsellers. (“Everyone likes Murakami but me.”) He revels in special projects like the culling and pricing of selections for a recent summer poetry cabinet featuring rare selections from the 70’s. “It’s certainly more fun than ordering more copies of Lolita,” he said of the task.
In spite if their divergent stocking/selection philosophies, together Bellamy and Kyle seem to have found balance, and for the past decade have offered the residents of Williamsburg a trove of resources that caters to the neighborhood’s curiosity.