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Outward Bound 

Two experiments in judging a book by its cover

Wednesday, Nov 24 2004
The initial effect is subtle. Walk into the Mission District's Adobe Book Shop on 16th Street, normally a cramped, slightly musty store crammed ragtag-style with used volumes, furniture that has seen better days, and random bric-a-brac, and it smells ... clean. As light streams through the front windows, you begin to notice the books. To your left, just past the old desk that serves as a counter, is an entire case of red volumes -- cherry next to coral, lipstick next to blood. Ceiling to floor, red. Your eyes wander toward the rear of the store, and the red shifts almost imperceptibly into orange (tangerine, construction cone, sunset) and then into yellow (school bus, egg yolk, smiley face). As you step back and take in the whole room, the spectrum running red-orange-yellow-green-blue-purple-brown on the left and white-black-gray on the right, the sheer audacity of the project takes your breath away. It makes perfect sense, and yet it makes none.

Chris Cobb grew up in Sacramento and has been making art in San Francisco since the 1990s. In 1997, he was recording the sounds of quiet neighborhoods and playing them back in loud ones. The 34-year-old artist/MFA student/teacher has reproduced famous Greek statues in glue sticks, sculpted faces out of mashed potatoes (shades of Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and now rearranged (with the help of around 15 volunteers) nearly all the books in Adobe Book Shop by color. This latest installation, titled There Is Nothing Wrong in This Whole Wide World, is at once whimsical, nutty, insightful, and simply beautiful.

At the other end of 16th Street, in Potrero Hill, the San Francisco Center for the Book is displaying another show that focuses on literary outsides. Called "AIGA 50 Books/50 Covers," it's a juried selection of "the best designed books and covers" of 2003 -- regular trade titles and children's books and reference works, volumes from university publishers and small presses and museum imprints. As it was last year (the show has been put on by the American Institute of Graphic Arts since 1924, and this is its second year being hosted at SFCB), "50 Books" is both worthy and frustrating. It includes several pieces that draw you in: For example, Internal Bleeding's white case, featuring the title in spattered red type, is covered by a vellum "X-ray" of a spine and pelvis -- with a surgeon's clamp apparently left behind inside the body. It's creepy, riveting, and effective. Unlike Cobb's Nothing Wrong, however, there's no "wow" moment in this exhibition, just a lot of little "huh" and "interesting" and "well, look at that" ones.

The two shows highlight very different approaches to books. Cobb's attitude is one of wonder. He calls his piece a "Utopian gesture." "There's always an element of 'What if?'" he explains. What if I took down every title on the walls -- an estimated 20,000 -- and rearranged them by color in one night, then reversed the order and put everything back where it came from in the same amount of time? It would blow you away. Even the title is buoyant. Cobb says, "With so many negative things in the world happening, it's important to remember that there's still beauty." The "50 Books" slant is somewhat more clinical. In the show's (overdesigned, unhelpful) handout guide, the competition chair, Cheryl Towler Weese of Chicago's Studio Blue design firm, writes, "The best covers were lyrical, tactile, and emotive." Emotive? The only emotion I felt going through the exhibit was astonishment: How did they manage to make so many attractive books so boring?

One of the designers whose work is featured prominently in the "50 Books" show is Chip Kidd -- as close as the industry gets to a rock star. In a monograph of his work, author Véronique Vienne quotes Kidd describing how book covers work: "'Looking at book jackets is like watching TV without the sound,' Kidd explains. 'It's like being in a bar, or at the gym, and watching the news on the TV monitor without being able to hear anything. In that situation, even the most benign photographs of a smiling kid can spell disaster. You instantly imagine the worst-case scenario.'"

Reading this quote reminded me of something Chris Cobb said before Nothing Wrong got under way. At first, he said, you wouldn't notice the installation. Adobe is usually a mess -- "They just have shit all over the place," he said with clear affection for the neighborhood "refuge," open since January 1989 -- and then it would creep up on you. You'd start to see that "something is terribly wrong." Like that smiling kid on the television, you wouldn't be sure what it was at first, and then it would hit you: You can't find anything. In the orange photography section you'll see a Betty Crocker cookbook and something called Honest Pretzels. On the purple African/African-American shelves are William T. Vollman's novel The Royal Family and a book on Alexander the Great. The browns and golds of history include Chapters in Western Civilization but also The Arab World Today. When I visited the shop two weekends ago, the morning after Cobb and crew finished their 10-hour effort, a middle-aged man stood confused in fiction. I jokingly chided him for removing a blue book (dusk, sapphire, wave) and altering the installation, and he stepped back in astonishment, as if seeing the colors for the first time. "I was wondering why I couldn't find anything," he said. A young couple came into the store and asked for a specific title. An employee told them, "We probably have it, but it'll be a week before you can find it." (The piece was originally supposed to be taken down on Nov. 21 but has now been extended through Dec. 12.)

Adobe's owner, Andrew McKinley, had to be persuaded not only that Cobb could pull off this feat but also that it would be a good thing. "I've admired Chris for a long time," says McKinley, "so I didn't think he was totally off his rocker" when the artist first proposed the idea in the summer of 2003. Cobb chipped away at McKinley's concerns systematically: He did a lot of reconnaissance, created color mock-ups, devised an inventory system, mapped out how to approach the store's 59 jampacked bookcases (he left the shelves in the middle of the room in their regular order), and built up trust to prove that he was serious. He did a trial run on one section of UC Berkeley's Garron Reading Room, which he timed and videotaped (the artist and the result are pictured on the new piece's postcard). He promised that the project would be temporary and gorgeous -- that it would, in fact, leave the bookstore in better shape than when he started.

Cobb's prediction has proven correct. The newly dusted, vacuumed, and organized Adobe Book Shop held an opening reception for There Is Nothing Wrong in This Whole Wide World on Nov. 14, attended by about 200 to 300 people. "Our sales have improved since the installation," says McKinley. The piece has sparked national interest, prompting coverage on NPR's All Things Considered and NBC News, among other places, as well as curiosity about Adobe -- which, like all independent bookstores, is struggling to survive -- and about books: "It has forced people to look closer at what's on the shelf," the owner says. Sure, some customers are frustrated at the lack of correspondence between shelf label and book subject, but the majority are enthused. "People are impressed by the beauty of the installation," McKinley says, and it's generating a word-of-mouth buzz. As one visitor said during my visit, "It changes the whole vibe in here. It's like a temple of books."

About The Author

Karen Zuercher


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