Sandeep Salter on books, babies, and bibliographies.

Sandeep Salter is the co-founder of Goods For The Study and Picture Room. Having worked in the past as an archivist, book buyer, and bibliographer, she now spends her days making her shops into two of the most enviably curated retail spaces in NYC.

Q / Hi Sandeep! How do you usually start your day, do you have a routine or is it always different?
A / I start my day with my daughter and we play for a couple of hours. She’s two, so my mornings are just full on playtime, cleaning, and fun household stuff. Then we get ready and get up my husband (he always sleeps in) and I drop her off. It’s always kind of chaotic and funny, and the morning activities are always different. Today we made ice pops, had a bath, and fed the birds all before nine o’clock. I usually come into the shop early so that I can work before the store opens and plow through my emails, but my day doesn’t have a prescribed schedule because I do a lot of studio visits and I’ll have meetings with people about other projects or consultations. This afternoon I’m doing a studio visit with Pia Howell which I’m excited about. My day is usually done around six. Then I go home and hang out with my daughter some more. I try to spend as much time in the store as possible but I’m definitely out a lot.

Q / You founded Goods For The Study and The Picture Room with Sarah McNally. How did you get involved with McNally Jackson and where did the idea for the store come about?
A / I started working at the book store as the art, design, and architecture buyer about four years ago. Sarah McNally and I work really well together so we decided to open Goods for the Study, and that was sort of an organic decision. It came out of us doing stationary buying together and finding so many things we didn’t see a context for in the city yet and that didn’t have a place in the book store at all. It didn’t really start as a store, it wasn’t Goods For The Study when we began. We thought we’d do antiques and other sorts of design objects, but it evolved and the furniture changed, as these things go as your buying. Picture Room opened a year and a half ago. We were doing some prints in GFTS as well, but mostly I do antique prints over there so we keep it pretty separate. In the beginning, we were doing a lot of contemporary prints at GFTS and some editions as well, but the editions didn’t work at all in that space and I think it was really confusing for people. I’ve always wanted to open a shop like Picture Room, and people talk about how nice it is to see the prints in this context. Sarah and I had many conversations prior to opening the store about finding a place to buy artwork that felt accessible and comfortable, so that’s how the second space came about.

Q / Would you define Picture Room as a gallery or shop? You do put on shows with artists, but the format seems to lean much more towards a store.
A / It is really a shop and I’m very adamant about people talking about it that way and for it not to be classified as a gallery because it has a completely different tone.

Q / Do you feel it’s more accessible because it’s a shop?
A /  Totally. I mean, there’s not that same preciousness that there is in a gallery. When we do shows they’re in amongst everything else and you can also just walk away with one of the artworks. It’s not like you have to wait until the end of the show to take something home because the narrative of the show or the concept would be broken if you took a piece out, which obviously makes sense for a gallery show. But here, things are so interchangeable and fluid that there’s not that delicacy of balance. It can be in and out. I think that’s really important and something that kind of liberates artists in a way, because they don’t feel bound up in getting it right. We have a lot of artworks here that are process pieces and some that are editions people just didn’t know what to do with. The Dexter Sinister show that we did here was made up of W.A.S.T.E. proof prints. It was a big portfolio that they’d been making for years and it was such and extraordinary body of work that was so rich, but didn’t have a context in a gallery, so when I was telling David and Stuart about opening the store they were kind of like, oh great, we’ve kind of been waiting for this context to arise, and it’s the same with the works that we just got in from Aidan Koch. They’re all process drawings from books that she’s made over the years that never made the final cut, but they’re all so great and they’ve just been sitting in her flat file, no one’s seen them. For people who are really into her work, they really relish having the opportunity to see and own these things that are produced as sort of byproducts of a greater body of work that’s more public. I also had prototypes from Seth Price of small vinyl prints that he’d made of the giant envelope works that he’d done. They’re real iconic, but he had these little vinyls that he’d done as test prints just hanging around. It is so special to see those things and be able to collect them as well. I find it really exhilarating to have access to it and so that’s what I really want to bring into the world with this space.

Q / I’m sure it’s exhilarating for the artists as well because that detritus is often a strange piece of their process that gets lost or ends up left in a pile in their studio.
A / Prototypes and things that people don’t know what to do with are so fascinating. They’re like, I made this great sculpture but it doesn’t go in this show, so they show it to maybe one collector or curator who comes to their studio once a year and then it just doesn’t go anywhere. There are so many things just sitting in flat files like that, which is why I wanted to open the store, to get those things out to the public, along with rare posters and other things that were also at a price point people could actually afford. There is so much talk of everybody being priced out of the art market right now, and I think that certainly as a young person, I feel that and I have never bought anything through a gallery. I’ve always bought through trade, at alternative spaces like Glenn Horowitz, or through shops like Printed Matter and 2ND Cannons, where it’s more about the rarity and collection of the shop rather than about a gallery showing an exhibition. Honestly, it’s never even occurred to me to even pursue a sale through a gallery. It’s just such a different context. I go to galleries all the time and I look at the art work and appreciate it, but how often do you think about taking something home? That seems saved for the super rich, but actually, I have so many pieces of work here that we got from shows put on just a year ago. For example, these Karel Martens prints were in this amazing show at P! Gallery down on the lower east side and we’ve gotten them. They didn’t sell because maybe no one asked or the collectors that do ask end up buy a huge set of them. I know that a greater body did sell but there are always these one offs that get left behind.

Q / There’s often an air of unavailability that can be a bit uncomfortable for the consumer, and its interesting how that attitude has trickled down from blue chip galleries to smaller spaces. You never have the mindset going in that you’re going to visit this placed and there might be something you can take home or even afford.
A / Going to absorb the artwork and think about it in a conceptual environment is great and thats what galleries should be for, but I also want there to be a place where these artworks can exist within the market in a casual environment where people feel comfortable talking about the price. That’s why I’ve put all these descriptions and the prices right on the artworks. No one really has to talk to me if they don’t want to.

Q / That element of anxiety when you’re looking at artwork you’d like to buy is definitely obliterated in the way you’ve set up the space. Unless you’re super educated about the current art market, most people have no way of knowing whether a piece will sell for $50 or $50,000, and that lack of knowledge can stop someone from even thinking about the idea of buying an artwork in a galley.
A / And that’s because artwork is priced completely arbitrarily, so its totally fair that people don’t have a frame of reference. You would’ve had to research the entire sales history of that artist and gallery in order to even feel comfortable broaching the subject, so I think it’s a totally different feeling when you’re in here and you know that it’s not going to be extortion. It’s a pretty safe zone.

Q / How did you first get involved in the art world?
A / I have a degree in fine art and philosophy, and I’ve been here in NY since I was seventeen. I’ve made work and done a lot of writing, and my first proper job in the art work related to this was at Printed Matter, where I was a bibliographer for about a year and a half. That was my real crash course education in printed work and artist books. Before that I’d worked as an archivist for museums and other galleries that didn’t relate to artist books, so when I was there it really set me on my course and I realized what I wanted to do in the art world, which was to work with paper and specifically artist books. Then I had a shop called Cambridge Books in M.I.T. with my husband and we did that for a couple of years, also selling artist books. There was this huge lack of art writing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and we wanted to bring that up there, so we ran that out of his office for a couple of years and it was great.

Q / M.I.T. seems like it would be a really interesting atmosphere to open an art book store around.
A / It was great, we had events and wanted there to be a space for the subject up there, because the mainstream bookstores weren’t bringing it in and there is an incredibly educated consumer there who was asking for it. That was started just as I was leaving Printed Matter, where I was writing descriptions of books all day, to be a buyer for McNally Jackson.

Q / The Picture Room seems like the perfect progression of all those experiences from your past.
A / Yes, it’s funny, I don’t write the descriptions here, but I am very particular about the way I want the work to be presented because I think that it’s something that really sets the space apart. You can learn something about all the artworks in a very upfront matter and I really like that. I’m a bibliographer and an archivist, and I think its important to have that information completely readily available and not just sitting in a folder hidden away.

Q / How do you feel about the internet and social media, do they play a huge part in the shops? Is there anything you find problematic about them?
A / We don’t have a website for Picture Room but we’re building one, and i’m not terribly engaged in social media. I’ve never had a Facebook or anything like that so I’m actually trying to do that stuff and a bit out of touch with it.

Q / It seems to play such a big part in so many creative businesses today, and I wonder how that changes the way consumers both purchase and digest printed objects. Everything in your shops is very much a real object to hold and cherish.
A / We’re such a brick & mortar shop as well. Sarah has had the bookstore for ten years and thats what we know. It’s also this hot topic, the bookstore being taken over by online sales. For us doing a website, we’re not trying to complete with online sales, that would be ridiculous. It’s just not what these shops are for, and with Goods For The Study,we have a website that my husband built. It’s good, it works, and it’s fine, but it’s certainly not something we’ve focused on.

Q / Do you do a lot of sales online?
A / Not particularly. We certainly sell things every day online, but its kind of like a blip on the radar compared to what we sell in the store everyday.

Q / Everything is so tactile, the idea of buying online seems almost unnatural.
A / I just don’t think I’ve found the right formula either. I’d like to redo the site so its more reflective of that tactility and I think it should feel a little bit more like the shop, but these things take a lot of work and it’s hard to do for a small business that doesn’t have someone dedicated to it. It’s a huge undertaking that’s incredibly expensive, so we’ve just kind of cobbled it together and made it work for now. We completely understand and agree that people should be able to buy our stuff online, but it’s kind of a problem that I haven’t really solved yet. I think with our new website its going to be a lot better than just something pieced together. I’m actually looking forward to it and think it’s going to look pretty slick.

Q / Are you also interested in selling the artwork at Picture Room online or will the site be more of an outlet for displaying the work to a broader audience?
A / I don’t really want to become solely an online retailer. To me, online sales and e-commerce is an extension of the store and has the potential to be a very large part of our business, but it shouldn’t but the driving for for us, so I don’t know. I would like for it to be a lot stronger and we’re working on it. I think that for the artwork, it’s really important for people to be able to go home and look at it again. This is kind of a three visit place. You come in on your own, look around, and go home to kind of think about something, and then you come back, maybe bring your significant other and both look at it. Then you both go away and talk about it and hopefully you come back and actually buy it.

Q / It’s interesting how you describe the experience of the shop because I feel like the first few times I came in before we were introduced that is exactly how I processed the space and all the objects you’ve curated.
A / It would be a lot more useful to have something at home that you could just look at so you don’t have to come down here every time. We do so much correspondence with people sending information and images. That takes up a lot of time for all the girls who work here, sending tear sheets and constantly updating our dropbox with available artworks and things like that. You see people’s behavior and how they buy things, and I think its really good that this isn’t just a place where people come in and do some impulse shopping. They actually come back and things stick in their mind, which is great. With artwork you have to be sure that you’re not just frivolously buying an image that you put in a cupboard, because that would be really sad.

Q / It seems like in highlighting all these process works and rare unseen pieces that maybe didn’t make it into a gallery show, you’ve created an atmosphere where people can really buy something solely because they love it without the attachment of it being just an “investment piece”, which hopefully keeps it from being simply catalogued into someone’s collection and sitting in a storage unit until it accrues monetary value.
A / I think so. There are so many really obscure pieces that are just sort of waiting for the right person and then when they come in its just like…you’ve found them. I don’t think that any of it would be put away, at least I wouldn’t! I have a lot of stuff in flat files too though, guilty of that…

Q / Do you have a team that works with you daily or are you one your own most of the time during the day?
A / We have four girls who work here, so there is always someone in the shop besides me, but I’m here every day during the week making sales, talking to people, and just doing day to day stuff. When I’m here though, I’m mostly on the computer trying to get through emails and things like that.

Q / When do you feel most productive?
A / I’m a pretty inconsistent worker. I kind of just sit down and do it. I’m not a procrastinator. Unless I feel ill, I always feel pretty productive. I’m always emailing and writing on my way to places as well, so I don’t think there is a specific time for me, but I’m very strict about not working at home, so I’m very productive from 10am to 6pm. I’ve always been like that. In college, I never missed a night of sleep and was always perfectly fine just doing it.

Q / Has the way you work changed significantly since your daughter was born? I know you’re expecting another at the end of the year.
A / Sure! When I had Lowe, she was with me in the shop until she was ten months old every day, so there was a lot of negotiating breast feeding and serving customers, things like that, because the shop was new and I was there on my own all the time, and that was great, it was so special. I’m going to do that with this one too, she’s going to come in with me. It just starts to get a bit boring for them when they can crawl and walk. Lowe still comes in every week and hangs out. She comes to all our events and is hilarious. She’s watched me sell things since she was a baby and so she comes around and will pick up pencils and be like “this is a pencil!!!” and show it to somebody. She also greets everyone when they come through the door. It’s great. Having a daughter, I don’t work or stay late anymore. I always leave on time before six so that I can get home and be there to make dinner. Before I had a kid, I was at a lot of events and and I don’t that any more. I only go to the ones that I think are really pertinent. Actually, I bring her along to most of them, but we have other things to do now that are much more fun than sitting in a room and listening to a seminar on I don’t know what. I go to things that I think she’ll enjoy. She likes poetry so we go to a lot of poetry readings and things like that.

Q / Is there anywhere that you go to be quiet and think?
A / That just doesn’t happen…there is no time for that. I go home and I don’t want to be on my own. When you’re a working mother you really appreciate the time you have with your child so much, so when I get out of work I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t want to be on my own, I don’t want to go somewhere and work or see people, I just want to be with my daughter, so I don’t really have that urge to be alone, I’d rather be at home with my family.

Q / You grew up in London. Why did you decide to move to New York and how has living here affected your career?
A / I’d wanted to move to NY since I was really little. I was just always one of those ambitious kids who thought it was the place to be, and my mom is American so we spent a lot of time here and it wasn’t an unheard of thing for me to come out here on my own. It was pretty expected, and for art, it really is the city to be in. London does not have the same vibrancy. The art scene there in terms of alternative spaces is very small and there is so much cross over with NY anyway, but I don’t think there is the same sense of urgency there that you feel here to get things done. Things close really early and everything is quite spread out. I love London though. I don’t really get homesick anymore after being here for ten years, but I definitely feel an affinity for it’s architecture and I wish that was something there was more of here. I really love historic architecture, but London doesn’t have the same buzz about it. In New York if you want a sandwich at four in the morning you can get one two minutes away, which is very important, especially when you pregnant. I can get gluten free cookie dough at all hours of the day and night. Its great! You can’t do that in London. You’d have to take a fucking bus to Sainsbury’s 24 Hours. It’s just not the same lifestyle. It’s a beautiful lifestyle there though and I think that there’s something to be said for its quaintness. It’s prim and proper. I really have strong nostalgia and hold a lot of value in being polite, the values of English culture. It drives me crazy when people here get on the train before people have gotten off. It’s so rude, you know, people not giving you their seat and things like that. I am so English in those ways, but then England is also an incredibly unfriendly place. You never say hi to people in the street over there, but here everyone talks to each other and it’s really sweet and open, that seems like a very American thing. I also just love America, I’ve always loved American culture; not its politics, but the culture. New York just has everything, all the foods of the world, number one, the best food. Cabs here, that’s another thing I love. I take cabs a lot and they are so cheap here. I do miss the buses in London though because I absolutely hate the subway. New York is just really great though. You can feel social here all the time without even actively seeking it out by just walking down the street, which I think is so important and what people should be doing in other cities.

Q / What was the most difficult part about opening the store?
A / With Goods For The Study, I was pregnant when we were opening it and on bedrest for four months, so I literally couldn’t move and had to be horizontal for that period. That was incredibly difficult because I was managing the design and construction, and I also was doing all the buying, but I couldn’t even come see it. I saw the store maybe four times before it was finished because I wasn’t allowed. We would have to do Skype meetings all the time, so it was a mess and made the whole thing really, really difficult, but it did give me a lot to do on bed rest. I definitely would not have wanted to do it like that. At Picture Room, just working with contractors was hard, because we’d never hired an architecture or contractor and I designed both spaces with Sarah. I hate managing contractors. They always seem to get it wrong then you have to come in and get mad at them which is horrible. That’s the worst. Its my number one thing that I just would not want to do regularly. Other than that it’s been really fun opening the stores.

Q / What’s been the most exciting part about it?
A / Finding things! Recently Sarah went to Japan and brought back a bag full of stuff for us, and I really got a kick out of researching and trying to find everything. I really enjoy being able to find things that other people don’t have in the city.

Q / Do you go on a lot of buying trips?
A / We do, but I did a lot more in the past. I used to do a lot of antique buying for GFTS, which I’ve done less and less of, but I’d like to do more. When we opened Picture Room it became much harder for me to take the time to drive upstate for an entire weekend. It just doesn’t get done because its not a priority. Sourcing things is just exciting. Having access to artists’ work and the museums I’ve gotten things from, you feel like a kid in a candy story when you come across ephemera that no one has looked at for fifty years. You just can’t believe it is sitting in a box. Like all The Living Theatre stuff we have for example, the archive is owned by one guy who is a friend of mine and he’s just got the most incredible things. We also have a John Cage press release from the original performance of Silence and things like that. There are just boxes of them, so going through it all is a real privilege and really fun. I feel so lucky to be able to do that.

Q / Last but not least! Is there anything you’re looking forward to this year in addition to the birth of your second daughter?
A / That’s number one obviously, but I’m always looking forward to Christmas. At Goods For The Study that’s just the best time. I’m a Christmas enthusiast, and when you work in retail it’s the most fun. I kind of stop taking meetings and switch off my buying muscle and we just focus on selling. That’s really fun for me because I don’t get to spend every single day in the shop talking to customers and I love doing it, so I’ve started to get excited about Christmas already and decorating everything. We’ve also got so many great shows coming up. We’re doing an edition with Dan Graham. I got a drawing from him recently so I’m really excited about that. I had a really great meeting with Michael Smith the other day, and he’s going to draw something with some pens that I give him. Pia Howell is going to be one of our featured artists, so this afternoon we are going to take a look at the work she’s been doing. There are so many projects that we have coming up that I’m really excited to see come to fruition.

Picture Room & Goods For The Study are open daily from noon to 8pm at 234-236 Mulberry Street in New York City.

Interview & Photography
Catherine Litke

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