“An art book is a museum without walls”, wrote André Malraux. This quote has helped me feel less guilty about my addiction to Craft, Art and Design books: I can spend months without buying clothes, shoes or bags but I can hardly leave a bookstand empty handed. This is how I met Sonia and Michael Collins, the owners of the company called Chrome Yellow Books. On their website, they describe themselves as “specialists in contemporary European art and craft publications”, as “suppliers to university libraries, museums and galleries” and as “bookstands at craft events, festivals, conferences, symposium”.
Having met them in numerous Applied Arts events, we are now friends and I wanted to interview them about their passion for craft publications. I phoned them a month ago and they immediately agreed but Sonia had a very good and pragmatic idea. She told me: “We will be selling books at COLLECT in May at the Saatchi Gallery and Saturday will be very busy. Why don’t you come help us and make the interview live that day?” I had already worked for them 2 years ago and it had been a very interesting and enjoyable experience, so I immediately fell for it. The event had started on Thursday evening, therefore I didn’t take part in the hardest and less gratifying aspect of their business: transporting books from their lock up store in a hired transit van, building the stand, carrying and displaying all the publications. I did however help selling them, maintaining the display and giving advice to customers from time to time, which gave me the unique opportunity to witness Sonia and Michael’s passion for what they are doing.
Sonia and Michael. Photo Isabelle Busnel
Chrome Yellow Books has no shop and their website is extremely basic: a single page provides a list of future events Sonia and Michael will attend. Their main activity is to travel to fairs, events, and symposium and visit universities with carefully selected books to sell them to customers and students. When asked why they don’t have a fixed shop or a proper commercial website, they come up with good reasons: a shop implies massive fixed overheads and a website requires time and money being built and maintained, as well as payment and delivery logistics. But more importantly, both of them like direct contact with people and they see their business as a way of sharing their knowledge and passion for makers and their work.
Both of them have an artistic background, which makes their manifesto very legitimate. Sonia graduated from Central St Martins with a BA in textiles and Michael was a painter. After 10 years working for a design and architect company, Sonia stayed at CAA (Contemporary Applied Arts) as an administrator for 11 years. There, she was in charge of setting up a collection of books about craft, sourcing them abroad and widening the scope of books available in the UK, and did a series of conferences about contemporary jewellery. She then realised that books were a great way of promoting the artists she was passionate about. In the meantime, Michael was touring England with punk bands he had met in Art schools, acting as their manager. When Sonia decided to set up Chrome Yellow Books, he joined the adventure, touring with books being a reminder of his good old times on the 70’s British punk music scene.
Sonia and Michael have built a quite unique business model in the UK and even in Europe. Everybody in the Applied Arts community knows them and wants them to sell their publications, which ranges from small exhibition catalogues of a few pages sold for £5 or rare books in limited editions, and they often have the exclusivity when an artist edits a catalogue of his or her work. Therefore, they don’t really need to source new books: books come to them. However, Sonia only sells books she is interested in and passionate about, which provides her selection with great integrity, as she is able to talk about each and every book she sells and to give precious advice to any customer looking for something specific.
Chrome Yellow Bookstand at COLLECT 2011. Photo Isabelle Busnel
Another key to understand Chrome Yellow Books’ success is the amazingly wide range of books available and the very careful selection process undertaken before each event. As they can’t carry every publication in their catalogue to every event, Sonia tries to anticipate what will be useful and sought after for each occasion. For Schmuck in Munich, a jewellery fair, she obviously chose a wide selection of jewellery books, but also many about textile and nature, as she had noticed that jewellers often take their inspiration from textile design and natural shapes. For COLLECT, they brought a lot of books about jewellery, glass and ceramics but none, I noticed, about woodworking. The reason Sonia gave me for this absence is that there are few publications available about woodworking, and even fewer of good quality, but sourcing some to complete her collection is definitely on her agenda. When they first travelled to France a few years ago they visited AFEDAP, a private jewellery school, and brought no technical book as they thought the language barrier would deter French students to buy them. On another visit to that school this year, Sonia decided to bring some on the basis that the French may have made progress in technical English, and every one of them were sold. Being able to anticipate what people will be looking for at each event is therefore crucial for the success of their business.
Selection for COLLECT 2011. Photo Isabelle Busnel
When asked what might be the next milestone in the development of Chrome Yellow Books, Sonia and Michael mentioned two projects: a proper website (not to replace their presence at major craft events, they insist, but in addition to it) and more travelling abroad to European destinations. They have really enjoyed being at Schmuck or in Paris and they believe they could reach a new audience and share their passion with foreign students and collectors.
I really wish them to be successful in this future development as they are the nicest couple selling books I have ever met and are very generously sharing their passion for craft publications. Applied Arts really need passionate people like them to spread the knowledge.
Sonia at COLLECT 2011. Photo Isabelle Busnel