With bookstores dying the death all over town, the opening of a cool new bookstore is cause for celebration. So, all hail Smart Art Press Books & Multiples, Tom Patchett's latest gift to the city. For the last 16 years Patchett operated Track 16 Gallery, a freewheeling institution that ran like a Kunsthalle, and presented one edgy exhibition after the next, many of which seemed guaranteed not to make money. Patchett says yes to ideas that intrigue him before he asks what they'll cost to execute, which makes him a rare and valuable commodity in the art world. Full disclosure: I have curated shows at Track 16.
“I opened the bookstore knowing it would be a challenge financially, but I've always wanted to have a bookstore,” Patchett explains of Smart Art Press Books, which combines art books with rare ephemera. “When I was in college in the '60s, Ferlinghetti had already opened City Lights, and everybody wanted to have a bookstore where people could hang around. Now I finally get to do it — 50 years later.”
Organized by Laurie Steelink, director of Track 16 for the past decade, Smart Art Press Books is furnished with couches and chairs, and its inventory is amazing. Currently on display is a Box in a Valise from Marcel Duchamp's series; a large, collaged cardboard door from the Card Bird series Robert Rauschenberg produced in 1970-71; the first 41 issues of Parkett (which will be sold as a set); and a good deal of material related to the '60s art movement Fluxus. It's all for sale, and it's all fascinating. “I wanted to get rid of things I don't plan to pass on to anyone,” Patchett explains, “and I also wanted to make our Smart Art Press backlist more visible — we've published more than 100 books.
“New and different things will constantly be brought into the store, and it's not going to look the same from one month to the next,” he adds. “We're not soliciting things, but if someone comes in with something interesting, we'll consider taking it on consignment — we have a copy of the Hamilton Press Raymond Pettibon book Faster, Jim.”
Smart Art Press Books is part of a reconfiguration of Track 16, which was conceived to make the gallery more flexible. “Next year we're going to partner with the Santa Monica Museum of Art to present part of the Michael McMillen retrospective being organized by the Oakland Museum,” Patchett says. “We still have two gallery spaces where we plan to continue mounting exhibitions — we just did a show of photographs by Mike Watt that we were really happy with.”
The Track 16 restructuring is also designed to highlight some of the collections belonging to Patchett, who has amassed in-depth holdings in several areas. The main space is now devoted to large pieces of Americana, and houses an actual diner from 1936, vintage neon signs and a gorgeous, cherry-red 1950 Ford convertible. An adjoining room that's been dubbed “the vault” (it has an old vault door from a bank) is lined with cabinets filled with vintage china from the '30s, '40s and '50s.
The result is an unorthodox hybrid of bookstore, museum and gallery, seasoned with a touch of thrift shop. “Do I care if we sell things? Yes, but it's not the most important thing,” Patchett says of the bookstore. “Do I care that we continue to have relationships with contemporary artists and show their work? Yes, I care about that very much.”