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A Bookstore Devastated By Sandy Limps Back With Some Help


Now, to New York. Printed Matter is a bookstore in Manhattan's Chelsea district. But it's not just any bookstore. The nonprofit works with artists to create, publish and sell their work in book form. It also hosts exhibitions and performances. Over the course of nearly four decades, it's become a beloved institution in New York's art community.

So when the store was flooded during Hurricane Sandy, volunteers - some of whom didn't even have power themselves - descended on Chelsea to help the store salvage what it could. Jon Kalish has the story of the ongoing recovery effort.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: Six feet of water filled Printed Matter's basement, its primary storage area. Around 9,000 books were destroyed. They comprised a kind of archive, says James Jenkin, the executive director of the nonprofit store.

JAMES JENKIN: This was stuff that we had created with artists over the years and years and years. It's not something you can easily replace. And it was stuff that actually generates income for the organization.

MAX SCHUMANN: Artist books, experimental book projects by artists, book works as art works but done in large editions meant to be affordable and accessible art works.

KALISH: Max Schumann stood outside Printed Matter about a week after the hurricane.

SCHUMANN: Some editions were entirely wiped out. Like, they are now out of print as of the flood or the one or two copies we happen to have in the store are the last copies of that edition. So it was a real tragedy in that sense.

KALISH: The founders of the organization included critic and activist Lucy Lippard and artist Sol LeWitt. David Senior stands amid the Printed Matter stacks.

DAVID SENIOR: We're in Chelsea, where there's a lot of blue chip art galleries where things are very expensive. And this is sort of the other end of the spectrum when you think about what's available, what people can own, what can exist in their homes as art.

KALISH: Senior is a bibliographer in the acquisitions department of the Museum of Modern Art. He says one of the things that makes Printed Matter so beloved is its effort to make art accessible.

SENIOR: A lot of the material here has a resonance not only with the art world but also that sort of world of zines and sort of a punk rock ethos of doing it yourself and putting work out in the world as just a form of personal expression through little Xeroxed books, that kind of scrappy art practice that you can see all along the shelves here.

KALISH: When Senior learned that Printed Matter's archive was under water after the hurricane, he rode his bicycle into Manhattan from Queens and helped clean out the store's basement. He was part of a small army of volunteers in the days following Sandy that boxed up what might be salvaged.

Twenty of those boxes are now with a disaster restoration company called Polygon. First, they were frozen, then sent to the Boston area and placed inside a vacuum freeze dried chamber. Summer Street is with Polygon's document recovery division.

SUMMER STREET: We put in the frozen materials. And once we close the chamber, we have a vacuum pump that actually brings down the atmospheric pressure. And in that process, the solid water will actually skip the wet phase and turn right into a vapor. It would not be something anyone would ever want to experience.

KALISH: Street says that because Printed Matter's archive was frozen so soon after being soaked, it has an excellent chance of being salvaged. This is costing thousands of dollars, but a couple of foundations have awarded grants for the archive restoration. The bookstore is now faced with finding an alternative to its basement for storage. Not easy in the gentrified Chelsea neighborhood, says Printed Matter's James Jenkin.

JENKIN: We are trying to sell obscure things for as cheaply as possible, so it's not the most successful business model in a lot of respects. And, yeah, you could change that by changing what we do and the type of stock we have and changing pricing, but that's not what we're about.

KALISH: A benefit art auction for Printed Matter will take place in the spring at a Chelsea gallery space donated by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.


LYDEN: And you're listening to WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on NPR News.

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Jon Kalish
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