Every October: Frankfurt, where all the Best Books Are


Frankfurt Book Fair 2013 (Image: ActuaLitté CC)

This past month my remarkable bookseller friend Bill Stout sold his books and his remarkable San Francisco bookshop, William Stout Books, to the extraordinary Eames Institute. William Stout Books may be the premier design bookshop in the world. The more that you know about design books, the more you would realize the brilliance of Bill’s shop.
 It was not always obvious, the organization of the titles in the shop.  Bill used the Venetian cityscape as his model — it may be impossible to find your way back, but it is wonderful where you are.
 The Eames Institute should be the perfect ally to ensure that this shop remains and remains in its extraordinary form. A great honor to San Francisco.

When I opened Peter Miller Books 40 years ago, Stout Books was already a legend. He walked into the shop one Saturday morning, introduced himself, and said, “I have a lot of good customers up here, I know you will treat them well. Glad to have you here.”
 For 25 years, Bill and I would go, every first week of October, to Frankfurt for the famous Book Fair. There were no other American booksellers there, or very few. And frankly, we were not precisely certain why we were there. Sometimes we would meet at the Saarinen TWA terminal, and fly on from there. Sometimes we would first go to Milan, or Helsinki or Copenhagen. In those days, if you had already flown so far, the airlines would send you on to another city for a $35 fee. There was no Euro, so you kept pockets of different change.
It was Europe that we needed, the incredible surge of design and color and detail. Its clothes, its spirit, its fashion, its furniture, its lighting, its books. Sottsass was in the shop, Starck was in the cafe, Versace was on the side street, Rossi was at the bar, Zaha was at the Peak, and the typewriters were yellow. We wanted what Europe had. They were literally years ahead in the sophistication of design books and the history of art and design.

The American publishers were only tentatively poking a toe in the new design. McGraw Hill and Wiley had set most of the pace, but they were done being an influence and no one had quite stepped up. The best books were being published in Europe — and then bought and translated by the English and the Americans. That was what the fair was for, making the deals.

I remember perfectly a London publisher explaining to an American publisher that Harry Potter was going to be quite the hit. It was so long ago that Harry Potter came out first in Britain and did not make an American appearance for nearly a year. The clamor eventually made them all come to their senses and be modern.
 We worked like crazy people. As there were no booksellers there, everyone thought Bill and I were simply confused publishers.

Bill and I were after bigger game, we wanted the books right now, no matter what language they were in. We spent hours convincing the French to ship the monographs of Frank, Ruhlmann, Dupre, and Chareau. Hours in the German section, where it was wall to wall with students, hoping to get some detail books. Hours with Electa and Moniteur, who had elegant books on contemporary design that no one had ever seen. We felt like we were sending the first wines home.
After some housing nightmares — Frankfurt is very serious about this book fair — we finally found a wonderful Pension Bruns (now closed). The windows opened out onto a courtyard. Each year (we stayed in the same small hotel for 20 years), we would walk up the West End street and buy flowers, the best bottled water we had ever tasted, honey (Frankfurt is very proud of its honey), fresh butter, and dense, dark bread. And shampoo and 500-mg aspirin, from the brilliant Apotheke next door. By the third year, in each shop, we were welcomed back.
 It is difficult to explain how vast, labyrinthine and coagulate the fair becomes. By the weekend, the students were allowed into the fair and made it all an elbow-to-elbow madhouse.

We made many friends, many people meeting an American bookseller for the very first time. It was crucial that you were there. You were the chance that the book would be in the American theater!

Each afternoon, the lovely and wonderful Alessandra Marchi, the publisher of Centro Di in Firenze, who was the first Italian publisher to present Frank Lloyd Wright, Alessandra would see us. And with her cigarette, you could smoke then, she would call us over. “Boys, are we never to have a drink?” And off we would go to the corner booth, for a bourbon. No one else called us boys. We were so honored we would have walked to her hotel and brought the drinks back. 

She would say, “these are my American booksellers” and indeed we were. She was one of the very first publishers to realize that the museums were producing the most extensive and interesting books. When someone asked about Italian Art Deco or Scarpa, we were ready.

By Friday evening, it was time to celebrate. We had found a restaurant, Knoblauch, garlic in German, and that was our honor, and theirs. It was not a big place — in fact it reminded me of a cafe in Montana. But it would hold a section of tables for us, on the busiest night of the year. And everyone would come — Monica and Gabriel Gili, Lars Muller, Marie Arvinius, Gianfranco Monacelli, Kevin Lippert, Hatje Cantz, Byggforlaget, Alessandra and her daughter Ginevra, Eric Hazan and Jean Christophe Bailly, the new Spanish publishers who were getting back their strength, the Danish Design Center, Alvin Boyarsky from AA London, Niggli, Phaidon.

Quite a group, literally the people who would create the very force and surge of all design publishing for the next 30 years. All arguing and laughing, and meeting each other for the first time.  Had anything disastrous happened to that group, an awful lot of design publishing would not be happening now.

I end with a quote from Bill Stout: “You don’t have much of a country if you think all design comes from the two coasts. Some of the greatest work has come from the middle states of this land. And we will not be great until our design comes from all of the people, all of the land, until we are a whole, working to make things better.”

Peter Miller
Peter Miller
Peter Miller runs the Peter Miller Design Bookshop, in Pioneer Square, in the alley between First Avenue and Alaska Way. He is there, every day. He has written three books, Lunch at the Shop, Five Ways to Cook, and How to Wash the Dishes. A fourth book, Shopkeeping, A Manual, will be published in Spring 2024, by Princeton Architectural Press.



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