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Penn Libraries News

Penn Libraries to Commemorate the 100th Anniversary of “The Headquarters of the Avant-Garde” with Exhibition and Conference

Black-white photo of “The Headquarters of the Avant-Garde” in 1920.

In 2008, the University of Pennsylvania Libraries received the contents of the Gotham Book Mart, the legendary New York City bookstore founded in 1920 by Frances Steloff. Now, the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts will celebrate the 100thanniversary of the bookstore’s founding by hosting the exhibition, “Wise Men Fished here: A Centennial Exhibition in Honor of the Gotham Book Mart, 1920-2020” and use the collection as the thematic inspiration for this spring’s annual Jay I. Kislak Conference. The exhibition will be on display and open to the public free of charge at Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center from February 18 through May 20.

“For decades the Gotham Book Mart was, as Steloff prosaically put it, ‘the headquarters of the avant-garde,’” explains David McKnight, Director of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the Penn Libraries. “The exhibition will explore the shop’s role in assembling, publishing, and promoting groundbreaking experimental writers as well as its later years under the ownership of Steloff’s hand-chosen successor, Andreas Brown, focusing on Brown’s passion for postcards and collaborations with graphic artist Edward Gorey.”

For the past eight years, Penn Libraries curators and staff have unpacked and processed over 200,000 items and unveiled 150 linear feet of archival materials. From this mass, McKnight and curatorial assistants Katherine Aid and Camille Davis have selected 300 pieces ranging in date from 1900 to 2000. Drawing upon the collection’s vast array of material evidence—books, periodicals, manuscripts, and ephemera—the exhibition will narrate the history of the shop from its earliest beginnings to its demise in 2005.

In response to growing interest in the concept of the modernist bookstore, “Modernism – Materiality – Meaning,” a three-day conference held in conjunction with the exhibit, will provide a framework for exploring the role of the Gotham Book Mart within the larger context of the printing arts, non-commercial publishing, retailing, and the marketing of modernism. Other topics will include surrealism, the New York poetry scene, the Beats, Edward Gorey, and much more. A film festival inspired by the Gotham Book Mart’s promotion of modernist film will precede the conference. Other events will include a performance of polyvocal poetry accompanied by bells, curator-led exhibition tour, and screening of the 1987 Deborah Dickson documentary Frances Steloff: Memoirs of a Bookseller.

Presenters participating in the conference include keynote speaker Andrew Thacker (Nottingham Trent Oxford University), Lise Jaillant (Loughborough University), Michael Taylor (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts), Steve Clay (Granary Books), Brian Cassidy (Brian Cassidy Books), Anne Waldman (Naropa University), Dan Saxon (magazine publisher), Paul Saint-Amour (UPenn), Jean-Christophe Cloutier (UPenn), Josh Kotin (Princeton University), Brad Duncan (UPenn), Liliane Weissberg (UPenn), Michael Duncan (art critic), Michael Thurston (Smith College), Steve Rothman (book collector), and Tim Murray (University of Delaware), among others.

Registration is requested for this free conference, which will run February 28 – March 2 in the Kislak Center for Special Collection, Rare Books and Manuscripts.

More information about the exhibition and conference registration can be found at: