Michelle Dunn Marsh's Bookshelves

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday March 19, 2020

Peggy Roalf: When did you realize that books were a drug of choice? 

Michelle Dunn Marsh: I was born into a family with a home library, and began creating my own books at a very young age, so they have been a constant in my life. As a literature and art history major in college I rarely wanted to part with my textbooks; I sold a few back to the bookstore so I’d have $20 in cash when I flew from New York back to Seattle, “in case of emergencies.” And then I started working in publishing in 1996, so books accumulated exponentially from that point on. 

PR: : What is the longest you have gone without acquiring a new title—and why?

MDM: Oh, a few months, I suppose? If that? I don’t always buy books to keep—I often buy books as research for projects I am working on, or ideas I hope to develop into projects in future, and not all of those end up in the library (I sell them back to used bookstores, or give them away).  

A history professor of mine once said that if you loved or respected an author, you should read everything s/he has written. With photographers I got to know well and valued, I tried to take that approach and own most of their books—the photographers helped in that process by gifting me books along the way. So I have many titles by 10–15 photographers who were my “pantheon” when I entered this world in the late 1990s. At this point I have a sense of what I own, what I look at regularly, and am more targeted in the books I purchase to keep—more women, more American photographers of diverse ethnicities, novels, non-fiction, and art books related to Burma, and Ireland, and the mixed-race experience in the United States.  

PR: What you like most about your bookcases?

MDM: I have four oak cases that have been around for about 15 years; they remind me of the ability, and the decision, to invest a little more in the objects I value the most. Until recently, they were surrounded by a hodge-podge of other units picked up along the way. My winter project involved getting rid of the less-sturdy shelves, buying four new units, and taking possession of 20 linear feet of wall-mounted shelving that belonged to G. Gibson Gallery.  

PR: Are they everything you every hoped for or is there room for improvement?

MDM: I have long wanted a room where I was surrounded by books from every direction—a desire triggered by one of Machiavelli’s letters where he describes going home, changing his clothes, and entering his home library to converse with the philosophers of old. The new units were chosen to create a semi-permeable barrier between my kitchen and the library, and that has worked wonderfully to achieve a 360-degree sightline of books in that cozy environment. 

Gail Gibson’s shelves were much more modern than my slightly junked, antiqued aesthetic at home, so it took a moment to figure out how to implement them. The day we were installing them in my office I realized that what I had envisioned wasn’t going to physically work. What I ended up with is much more dramatic, and much simpler—two long rows of open shelves floating alone on a wall. The top shelf spans 12 feet, and is full of books I have worked on. 

PR: What went into your choice of bookcases — any research? Any seen/envied among friends/colleagues?

MDM: I spent ages looking at shelves to work in my library—talking to people about possibly building a wall to separate the kitchen off, contemplating custom shelves, watching used-furniture sites, measuring and re-measuring when my sister or a friend saw something for sale that might work in the space. Some days I despaired of ever seeing it through, because it all felt too expensive, and given limited resources, I had a tough time committing. In the end, I was motivated to act by G. Gibson Gallery relocating to a smaller space and needing to get their shelves out, which prompted me to stop talking about it and get something done. I ultimately purchased two large and two smaller units from Cost Plus World Market for the library. They required some assembly, but are metal-framed with sturdy wood shelving, and they were designed to stand alone (i.e. they don’t have to be wall-anchored) so they worked well for my purposes. 

I had three smaller, assembled bookcases from Cost Plus in my office, and was pleased with how they withstood the weight of the art books, so I had confidence in what I would likely receive. I was nervous about assembling them well, but a friend assisted, and he has done carpentry and woodworking so I trusted his abilities to make sure the units were solid. 

PR: Have your shelves ever collapsed under the weight of your books? Or have your photo-and-artbooks caused any other type of disaster caused by big heavy books?

MDM: No, thankfully, but moving them around is always a challenge because if you take a few books off a shelf everything can slide—some heavy-duty metal book ends are a worthwhile investment, especially when you’re moving things around. 

PR: How you organize your photo-and-artbooks?

MDM: I don’t reorganize too often unless I have to because I’ve moved/relocated, as it takes me a while to then learn where everything is. I get very anxious when I can’t find a book I’m looking for— it can upend my whole day! 

This latest was both a space and a conceptual re-org, which I hadn’t done in about eight years. I had books in different parts of the house that I wanted to bring together in the library, and I was re-using existing shelving but wanted to position those cases in different locations, so in the end I took everything off the shelves and piled them up in the living room. I didn’t end up getting rid of too many books—to me that was an indication that I was not overbuying, and that the books I was getting I continued to find meaningful. 

At first I put the monographs in loosely alphabetical order; I started forming new categories along the way as I sorted through. What I’ve landed on (for the moment!) is more thematic, and then alphabetical, with some surprises. I began to think about relationships between artists, and how important those are to them, and to me. So the books’ locations sometimes reflect that. For instance, I am a fan of William Christenberry, who I knew personally. He was close friends with William Eggleston. I only have one or two Eggleston books, so they are next to Bill’s books, instead of under “E.” A Walker Evans book will likely end up near Bill, too, in time. If someone else is looking at the shelves, I hope this better reflects who those photographers were to me, and to one another.  

PR: What do you do when you run out of shelf space? 

MDM: I have some empty space on the bookshelves in the guest room, for the moment—I’m excited about that. I will probably use some of it for temporary storage, and I’d like to believe that when friends come to visit I will pull out selections for them to put in the guest room for their perusal while they’re staying here. 

Prior to the re-org, a lot of books were ending up in piles on tables, or shoved onto shelves wherever there was room, and I was finding it hard to locate books I knew I owned. I now have one freestanding adjustable shelf with a built-in bookend my dad designed, where I place books I want to read; that level of organization feels so good! 

PR: Have you ever had to move your library? What are the best and worst things about moving this kind of collection?

MDM: When I moved from New York back to Seattle the first time, I carefully packed liquor-store boxes (which are very well made and reinforced) with books, and every week for a few months mailed them west. Shortly thereafter everything I owned—books, prints, clothes—was stored inside my 1950 Studebaker, which was itself in a storage unit. Thankfully that car has a 6-foot trunk! That was the hardest. I then moved three times in five years within Seattle, did a year-long stint bicoastal between New York and Seattle, then a move from New York to San Francisco, and another year between San Francisco and Seattle. From 2005 on the majority of the books have been shelved in Seattle, though I always had some books with me (and yes, I was often acquiring a few more) when I was partially living in other cities. 

The best thing about moving is having to sort through and determine what you’re keeping, and why. It’s a big job that one tends not to undertake unless you have to. The WORST parts are possible damage to the books in the moving process, having to pack up and unpack the books, and feeling lonely without your books easily accessible around you.  

PR: What is the first photo-or-artbook you ever bought and why did it catch your attention? What was the last photo-or-artbook you purchased? What is the next photo-or-artbook you might purchase?

MDM: First photo book was Larry Fink’s Social Graces; I loved everything about it, even though I was buying it as a gift, and not for myself. I can’t remember the first one I bought for myself, but I am pretty sure it was from street vendors in New York City. I was pretty mad when I learned those books were all stolen; at the same time they sold them for very little money and that’s all I could afford at the time. Hmm, the recent books that stick out in my mind are Dawoud Bey’s retrospective, Mitch Epstein’s New York Arbor, and a photobook about Anglo-Indians in Goa published by Seagull. I really wanted Sohrab Hura’s The Coast, but the gallery in Calcutta was sold out, so I will keep an eye out for it here. 

PR: What are the best bookcases you have ever seen and what do you envy about them? 

MDM: The BEST bookcases? Morgan Library, hands down. That is my go-to happy place. 

Leon Botstein and Barbara Haskell have a wonderful home library with built-in shelving in their Spring Street apartment; there is nothing really fancy about them but because it is floor to a high ceiling it is pleasing to the eye, and with a small ladder or stepstool seemed very accessible.  

PR: Can you advise the readers on anything you feel should be avoided in the planning and construction/installation of bookcases?

MDM: Determine for yourself if your library is for looks, or for function. Mine has been and will be for function, so it is not simply about storing books but being able to take books out (and not have a shelf collapse) and having places to group books when I am working on projects, then re-shelve them when the project is complete. 

Assume you will occasionally add a few more books than you get rid of, and plan for that any time you’re increasing shelf capacity. The new shelves I got are fixed position, but 15 inches high and 15 inches deep, so all of my big books fit, and I can even shelve small books on both sides of the shelf, which increases capacity. The metal frame is not too obtrusive, and if I had to move them they would be much easier than my lovely but heavy oak cases. Above all, choose whatever shelves allow you to comfortably live with books—that is ultimately what matters! 

All photos © copyright and courtesy of Joe Freeman, Jr.

Michelle Dunn Marsh is the co-founder and publisher of Minor Matters Books. For the last 25 years she has been engaged in public programming, exhibitions, education, and publications that bring audiences into closer contact with significant photography. She has worked with Aperture Foundation, Chronicle Books, Jim Marshall Photography LLC, YoungArts, Photographic Center Northwest, and numerous other institutions across the United States. A proud graduate of Bard College, she also holds an MS in Publishing from Pace University. Her work was recently featured in an inaugural exhibition, “Seeing Being Seen,” at the Highline Heritage Museum in Burien, Washington. She has just launched Book Pitch with her business partner Steve McIntyre to assist more people in realizing their book dreams through self-publishing or commercial opportunities. pimp_bookcase