Interview

with Walther and Franz König

Walther und Franz König

Walther and Franz König
Booksellers and Publishers

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dOCUMENTA (13) - Behind the scenes: 

Interview with Walther and Franz König, Booksellers and Publishers

“For me, the Documentas have been something like benchmarks during the forty years of my career as a bookseller. In terms of bookselling, the Documenta is our greatest challenge.” Walter König

Mr. König, would you please briefly introduce yourself?

Walther König: My name is Walther König. I am a bookseller and publisher. Independent bookseller since 1969 in Cologne. I’ve been a publisher since 1968, along with my brother, Kasper.

How did you become the bookseller for the Documenta? Which was the first Documenta you attended?

WK: My first Documenta as a bookseller was the 1968 show, the fourth Documenta.

Who was the curator at the time?

WK: It was Arnold Bode. However, I did the Documenta on behalf of my employer at the time, Hanns Meyer; I was an apprentice under him at the Bücherstube am Dom in Cologne. In those days, the Documenta was always handled by Vietor booksellers in Kassel. We went to Kassel and told them that we’d really like to do it. Mr. Bode, however, was very loyal and upright when it came to our colleagues in Kassel. He said, if you can both come to some sort of agreement, then it’s okay. We then agreed that we, the Bücherstube am Dom, would operate a stand in 1968 and stock only the things that were not available in German bookstores, such as foreign publications and titles that had no ISB number. It’s known as “gray literature.”

So you were able at least to take over a small niche . . .

WK: Yes. We were really just supplemental. Looking back, though, it was one of my best Documentas. I was alone for three months in Kassel. We had a stand that was perhaps five meters wide and three meters deep. It was next to the Vietor shop, right there in the lobby of the Fridericianum.

What were working conditions like in those days?

WK: There was no fax machine, yet, and we weren’t allowed to telephone, because it was too expensive. If I needed some books, then I wrote a postcard to Cologne: please send two of these, three of those. Then the post would deliver a package a couple of days later. That was somehow wonderful. That was the first time in my life that I had worked in a context like that. I still have the documenta 4 catalogue, signed by almost all of the artists.

Did you have the time to get catalogues signed?

WK: Yes. That was somehow a very leisurely thing. And as I said, I spent three months living in Kassel. If you were to count up all of the time I’ve spent at Documentas, I’ve very likely spent more than a total of three years in Kassel over the course of my bookselling career. In 1972, with Harald Szeemann, we had our own stand for the first time. In the meanwhile, I had started my own business. Since then the store has done all of the Documentas except for the last one by Buergel. We fell into a kind of limbo there. But this summer it will start up all over again.

So the old tradition will be continued . . .

WK: Yes.

How has the bookstore changed over the years? Has it become bigger with every new Documenta?

WK: As I said, at the first Documenta with Bode, it was just a small bookstall. There was a table, and the books were displayed on it. And on the back wall there were shelves, but customers couldn’t get to it. They always had to ask me first, if they wanted to see something. Later, we always had a stand in the Fridericianum, always in direct collaboration with Beuys. Beuys was something like an honorary patron of our bookstore. At the 1972 Documenta he presented hisBüro für direkte Demokratie (Office for direct democracy). When you walked into the Fridericanum, there was Bazon Brock’s visitors’ school on the left, and our bookshop on the right. It was set up in the middle of the room. And behind our shop was the Büro für direkte Demokratie. In those days our bookshop was very popular, but it was often blocked by the students.

What was there that interested the students?

WK: Most of them came from Frankfurt. They didn’t care one whit about the Documenta. They lined up in the mornings before ten a.m. to see Beuys and take him for a ride, somehow—to have discussions. Of course, that was the political period. Beuys was unbelievably patient. He answered the same questions from morning till night. That made a lasting impression on us, as booksellers. Beuys was strongly involved with our bookshop. He came over in the morning, when he had time, and commented on the books. In those days we were always talking about exchanging the books. The books were too dirty. But Beuys always said, for God’s sake, leave the reader’s copies of your books—which keep getting greasier—alone. The dirtier, the better. Everyone’s familiar with that, when books are a little bit white in the middle, while the front and back are so greasy. On the last day, then, he worked on all of those books. That was the first really professional Documenta bookshop, which was also very important to the visitors—very austere, almost a part of the exhibition. Szeemann’s “Individual Mythologies”: that was a wonderful theme for us, as booksellers. It helped make us a bookstore that really followed the Documenta system.

The audience for the Documenta, which also comprises potential customers, is very diverse. On one hand, there are very specialized people, the “old hands” of the art market, but there are also people who only go to a big exhibition once every five years. How would you describe that?

WK: The Documenta is still the exhibition to end all exhibitions. The Whitney Biennial and even the Venice Biennial can’t hold a candle to it. This is still the big event. And a huge international audience attends the opening days. The artists, dealers, collectors, and museum people are there. And they always spend a few days there, not least in order to do business, I believe. Then an important part of the audience is made up of students. If you trace it back, Bode actually originally conceived of the Documenta as something for younger people. That was the audience he always wanted to attract. But it was also a big wash-out. In 1968 “his” audience was highly politicized and opposed him totally, accusing him of too much Americanism at the Documenta. That was a big disappointment for Bode—that the people for whom he staged it all were his sharpest critics, so to speak. And then for the entire three months, of course, there was a totally serious, perfectly informed, super audience of specialists from all over the world. And besides that, the broader public. There are also a lot of middle-class people who go there for the experience, but who don’t really get the individual works of art.

Perhaps they come because there’s a certain tradition?

WK: Precisely. So in the meantime the audience keeps growing. I have no idea how big it is now.

Over 750,000.

Franz König: Everyone is actually quite serious. Even the educated middle-class approaches it differently than they would a big blockbuster exhibition.

So is there something solemn about it for you, too?

FK: Solemn, no, but it’s a kind of positioning, and you can really approach it seriously. There’s also a kind of tipping point that you have to reach, in order to come to Kassel at all. It’s a real undertaking.
WK: You mean the visitors?
FK: Yes. They are seriously interested. And that’s why a bookshop does well there, too. They are also interested in learning more. And when they go home, they keep studying it. It’s not instant consumption; it’s a very conscious experience.
WK: But it’s also good for us, as booksellers, as Franz says. The big collectors and dealers buy all of the books they’re interested in. But as booksellers, there’s something else that we rarely see, in terms of high quality and numbers, and that is the many young people, who don’t have the money to buy works of art, but are seriously interested in it and therefore very sophisticated book buyers. The bookshop at the Documenta—when things are going well, and they almost always go well—is something like a meeting point at the Documenta. People say: it doesn’t matter if you’re half an hour late. I’ve got plenty to do here in the bookstore. Customers at the Kassel bookstore linger much longer than in any of our other museum bookshops.

And the quality of conversations must certainly be better?

WK: Unfortunately, conversation is limited, because, of course, it’s very hectic. But at the Documenta, we never actually have any conflicts in the bookstore. And that’s the case, even though the circumstances are a little less luxurious. At the Documenta 11 we had thirteen containers that were put together to form a store. It’s extremely hot inside. The condensation practically drips off the walls. And it’s extremely full. People stand there as if they were in a narrow streetcar. And despite it all, nobody complains. Everyone is just in a totally good mood. You always talk to people who find books extremely important. There’s absolutely no hype involved. It’s not about self-image. That’s our ideal public. And the quality of books we sell is very high.

Then people probably go home with bags of books . . .

WK: They take advantage of our worldwide shipping service. Every Sunday evening we drive back to Cologne with a delivery truck full of books and ship them out from here. People really come from all over the world. Many of them, especially young people, regardless of where they live, use the Documenta as an opportunity to go to Europe, perhaps for the first time. We have all kinds of services for these people.

Can you recall any particularly outstanding encounters with book lovers?

WK: One of our store’s specialties is artist’s books: books as autonomous works of art. The tenth Documenta was a wonderful situation for us. We had two bookshops there. Down in the Documenta Hall we were part of the Documenta project. Catherine David asked Vito Acconci, a New York artist, to build a landscape for watching videos. But he said, no, he wasn’t interested in videos, he would rather build a bookstore. So he talked to me about it, and we were enthused about it. Then he built a totally sophisticated bookshop. We limited ourselves to artist’s books there. It was a big success. There was a big reading table. Ever since then, we’ve always found a very good, interested audience for artist’s books. This year, we’ll also have a department for them.

During the day many visitors are busy touring the exhibition. How late are you open at night?

FK: We’re open until eight p.m., often later if we have customers and things are pleasant, we can stay open a little while longer. That’s often a very nice situation, and we frequently get into informative conversations.
WK: You get an extreme amount of information there. Of course, many artists come, too. Many of them offer us their publications. If there’s time, and that often happens in the evenings, then we have a look at them. To this day, actually, lots of people always meet in front of the bookstore in the evening.
FK: And that’s an exceptional situation in the best sense. Often, people don’t want to go home because they’re having so much fun.
WK: Those are people who really value our work. At the Documenta we get the kind of feedback that we don’t normally get on a daily basis in our store.
FK: But those are also people who like to share their knowledge, who aren’t testing you or showing off, but who simply like to talk about what’s happened during the day and which books they like. It’s real communication.

Does that lead to new projects?

FK: It does, yes.
WK: Then it’s really international. It’s also perhaps interesting to note that German-language books are less and less important. English is the major language, absolutely. Not just when communicating with the customers, but also when it comes to the publications.
FK: We’ve noticed that, too. At some point there were suddenly lots of people from Spain and South America. Before, there were not so many of them.
WK: We’ve often had our first contact there with people who become regular customers for years.
FK: You asked about special encounters. The nice thing is actually, that the situation in the store is normally very pleasant. After all, the customers aren’t on display. We also deal a lot with many artists. Some of them introduce themselves, but many don’t. But it’s all on one level. It doesn’t matter if it’s a student, an artist, or a professor. They all use the store in the same way. Often, we don’t realize until later that we’ve been waiting on a famous customer.
WK: It was the same way last time, too. Hal Foster, one of the great American theorists, came and said, “It’s nice that you’ve got my books laid out here.” Things like that are great, somehow. They’re happy, and then we also hear a lot of tips, too. Foster said: there’s a guy who totally tore it to pieces, my colleague so and so. But it would be very interesting if you could place his book next to it.

So over the course of the three months does the assortment of books change, thanks to these tips and these kinds of conversations?

WK: Yes, it does. But we’re always also doing research for the bookstore. For us, the Documenta is the greatest challenge we have, in terms of bookselling. We’re a somewhat anachronistic bookstore. We do everything; we sell to a lot of libraries. We have a lot of what is today known as in-house merchandising. We still write real postcards to people. When we know that someone is interested in Meissen porcelain, then we send them a postcard. Which is not very common any more in bookstores. We also have a large inventory of second-hand books. On one side of bookstore is an alphabetical shelving system, where you can find all of the available literature about each and every artist at the Documenta.

So you receive the otherwise top secret list of artists beforehand?

WK: Yes, we have it.
FK: Under lock and key.
WK: Yes, we have to take an oath upon the Bible, so to speak. Which is also interesting, however. This time there’s a section featuring books in Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s library, where you can also buy individual titles.
FK: Some of the list has already been published on the website: the books she’s bought and read during the time in which she’s been preparing the Documenta. It’s a very interesting list. It also contains a lot of literature. She is a highly educated woman. We hope that the customers will also find it interesting, because it’s a very unique library with an order all its own.

How will the bookstore be set up? Is there a tried and true order?

WK: The systematic bookstore is very transparent. You go into what you can call the left third of the bookstore, into a space that’s like a lobby, and behind that is the cash register. You can orient yourself on that: now you go either left or right. To the left are postcards and the somewhat popular things. And to the right you’ll quickly realize that it’s strictly systematic. It starts with aesthetic theory and goes all the way to the end with a separate hallway that leads to the artist’s books. That’s the reading room, as it were. There’s also a reading table, without any books on display. Then the left side is strictly devoted to Documenta artists.
FK: It starts with theory.
WK: We recommend books through presentation, where we place things, whether on the table or on the wall, facing out, as they say today, with the cover facing the customer, or in the usual way. If you were to come now, and I had the time, then I’d say, here, you’ll find this interesting. We’re all very ambitious to present the titles that we personally find interesting, so that the customers know what our opinion is.
FK: But that works on various levels. It doesn’t always have to be in the best place on a pile; it could be filed away alphabetically, because we hope that the specialist will take the time to look through that shelf.
WK: And then in the back of the store, where everything narrows down, there are two shelves containing only our recommendations. There might be a book on medieval cathedral sculpture. Or something by Asger Jorn, who once did a book about tongues. Something like that. Or every once in a while, a novel. Or a particular photo book, photos by Brancusi, or whatever. We’re interested in saying, here, this is a special tip. We don’t put up a sign saying that, but you can figure it out. You can see that it doesn’t fit into the system. There might be a book about classical furniture or furniture by Schinkel. That’s fun for us, as booksellers. And that changes, too, depending on how people react.

Let’s go back to the way things are coordinated with the artistic director. Are there meetings in advance? Were you friends before?

WK: No, we’re not friends, but there’s a very good work atmosphere. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is totally relaxed and wonderful. In English, you address each other by your first names, anyway. But this time we also submitted our proposal early. First came the contractual stuff with the Documenta GmbH. Then we corresponded with her. And then we met for a conversation. That was in December. We spent two hours here in Cologne, talking with her and her assistant. It was actually a very nice conversation. She really sounded us out.
FK: But was also very open.
WK: She showed us the list there. I wanted to keep it, but wasn’t allowed. In the meanwhile we get emails from her twice a day. That’s really picked up. We didn’t actually sign the contract until much later, just two weeks ago.

There’s always a very relaxed atmosphere in your Documenta bookshops. How do you actually manage that?

WK: Our big store has a very open layout. Everyone can touch everything. Nothing is behind glass. Not even the expensive books. We never tell people to be careful of that book, or whatever. But astonishingly enough, very little is actually ruined. In my opinion, people at the Documenta handle books even better than they do in other places. Only the last section, the artist’s book section, is a little bit like a museum. There, it’s a bit more problematic to say, touch it, leaf through it. Of course, there are a couple of titles that are really expensive and cost a couple of thousand euros. Those just have to be protected.

Let’s move on to the Documenta Notebooks. You already have them in stock. What’s your experience with them, so far? Is there any interest in them?

WK: It varies. I think the idea for this series is great. As it always is with these kinds of series, there are also volumes that I personally like better than other. I think that some of them are very extraordinary: the book by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the super theoreticians, and the especially interesting artists, Ida Applebroog, for instance. But the Dalí book is also surprising. We have that facing out, and the others are placed next to it, in the usual way. Our clientele expects that. They pay careful attention to that.
FK: But you also notice how the nervousness is increasing. More and more people are hooked. They start with one notebook and come back the following Saturday and buy three more.

And maybe they’d like to have a complete set?

FK: We have a number of customers here in Cologne who have subscribed to the complete series. Customers have to get used to the idea at first, but then they come back and are excited. Even though they’re just short notebooks, if you put them all together, it’s a lot to have to work through.

More than 3000 pages . . .

FK: Well, we’re noticing that the Documenta is coming up fast. Now the more unusual notebooks are being released, and they’re just getting better and better.

Back to Kassel. From your accounts, we assume that evenings there at the Documenta can be very special . . .

WK: Evenings are indeed something special. As booksellers, if we can still crawl at the end of the day, then there’s something to do every night. There’s also a kind of group of people from Kassel. There are some totally interesting types, really interesting people. The students from the academy, for instance, who are security guards. On the other hand, there are people who have some sort of job to carry out at the Documenta for perhaps four weeks or so. Actually, so far people still get together somehow every night.

Has a kind of inner circle formed?

WK: It’s a kind of circle made up of people who are at the Documenta.
FK: That’s the good thing, because Kassel is a small city, after all.
WK: Then you always know where to go.
FK: It’s not an elite circle, though, but an open one. Students from all over the world, who also find out where the pub is.
WK: And that is quite an essential part of the Documenta.

Do you always stay in the same place in Kassel?

WK: We always rent an apartment somewhere.
FK: It has to be as close as possible, so that when you wake up in the morning with a bit of a hangover, you can still make it to the bookstore on time and maybe go home at lunchtime and take a half-hour nap.
WK: When you’re working there, you’re always a little bit “high,” anyway. As I said before, it’s sometimes very stressful work. It’s usually very hot and very full. People get very close to you. On the other hand, the fact is that they want titles that we might sell five of here in the Cologne store during the first six months after the release date. They’re best sellers in Kassel. Every day. Ten copies a day.
FK: You’re rewarded there. You get instant affirmation.
WK: And it’s not necessarily the turnover. But Chicago University Press paperbacks that are hard to sell here fly off the shelves there, as if they were mysteries.
FK: And it’s also different here than it is at some book fair, where you’ve got three days full of hype. Naturally, that’s very intense. But it’s more about consumption than art. In Kassel it’s really about the exploration. Discourse plays a far greater role, which is reflected in what goes on with us at the bookstore.
WK: For me, the Documentas have been something like benchmarks during the forty years of my career as a bookseller.

Where is the ideal location for a bookstore at the Documenta?

WK: Our idea has always been to create a situation like the ones in Italy. There’s always a bar across from the cathedral. And we want to be something like a bar, with our bookstore directly across from the Fridericianum. That actually worked for many years. We were always under the trees, directly across from the Fridericianum. That’s all been built up now, though, because the entrances for the new parking garage are there. This summer we have the best location of all. It’s Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s affirmation of books! You’ll see.

Someplace everyone passes by . . .

WK: Yes, absolutely. We are always interested in letting people know that there is a bookstore. However, it’s up to the visitor to make the decision to go there.

Interviewed by art journalists Nicole Büsing and Heiko Klaas.
April 18, 2012

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