For some people, spending time in bookstores – drifting through stacks and aisles, letting the senses fill up with the texture and odd joy of all those books – is a devotional practice. We browse. We linger. We fill our lives with these beautiful, readable objects. Katie Barringer believes in this magic, and her store, Cover Books, continues to offer surprising, comforting spaces where all different sorts of devotions – art, photography, food – come together in the store’s collections. In addition to Cover’s new space at the Atlanta Contemporary, the recently opened pop-up Ephemera, “a temporary outpost of vintage and rare art books” in Shedspace at Whitespace Gallery, allows buying books to feel like stepping into another world. Tucked away in the garden, the tiny shed that houses Ephemera feels like a dream of a store, glowingly lit, alive with books. Like all great pop-ups, Ephemera is social, intimate, and you just wish it would stay forever.
ArtsATL: You’re from Atlanta and went to school in New York at Pratt. What was the city like when you came back to Atlanta and began the process of first opening Cover?
Katie Barringer: When I moved back to Atlanta, I started working at Art Papers because – unlike now – it was one of the only arts organizations based here and it was a great opportunity. After a while, I started working in restaurants to supplement my income and ended up falling in love with that world – specifically, the wine part – and eventually chose to pursue that path entirely. After a few years of working in different parts of the wine industry (retail, restaurant and wholesale), I realized I was missing the creative aspects of being in the arts.
So, in 2014, I decided to take a bit of a personal sabbatical back to New York to figure out what the next step would be. I was very open at the time – even thinking that I might end up staying there. But, two weeks in, after spending every single day in a different bookstore (as I always did when traveling), it became extremely clear – truly hitting me like a lightning bolt – what I wanted to do. I thought: “I love Atlanta, I love bookstores. Atlanta is ready for a different kind of bookstore.”
After a few months of research in New York, I moved back to Atlanta and hit the ground running. From the get-go, I always wanted the selection to reflect the two major interests of mine: art and food, which happen to play very well together. From the very beginning, Cover was always going to be about Visual Nonfiction – basically, nonliterary picture books!
ArtsATL: So everything was already prepared in a way? Was it all in place?
Barringer: It really fell into place! It felt like all the separate things I had done in my 20s all finally made sense. Like, “You see, I wasn’t scattered! It was just all leading up to Cover.”
I lucked out with my old space behind Octane. It was very airy and allowed the books to be presented as objects in and of themselves and gave people room to really spend time with them. There was a lot of magic to that space – and synchronicity. But from a business standpoint, what Cover started to become was more about the space and less about the books. I was getting away from what I originally set out to do, which was to offer something that I didn’t feel Atlanta had: this selection of smaller production art and design books, interesting cookbooks, weird International magazines. The focus had switched to the space itself and the environment within it, especially during events.
This May, I left the original space to pursue a partnership with Atlanta Contemporary. As a contemporary art institution, it made sense that they would have a book component – and with their added history with Nexus Press, it seemed like a natural fit. The people there have been very supportive in terms of promoting Cover, and, physically, it’s a space that’s conducive to events – which has always been a vital part of Cover’s brand. In addition to our new space at Atlanta Contemporary, we continue to collaborate on satellite events with local restaurants and businesses. We do a quarterly event at Bread and Butterfly for a British wine magazine called Noble Rot; have held a few cookbook launches at Kimball House and Ticonderoga Club, and regularly work with Steven Satterfield of Miller Union on events with visiting chefs. The collaborative and social aspect is very important to Cover and also, I believe, a crucial tactic in modern-day book selling.
ArtsATL: How did the concept of Ephemera begin?
Barringer: Ephemera started because the Contemporary was going to be closed for the month of August and I needed to look for some additional outlets for Cover. Susan Bridges and I have known each other a long time and always wanted to collaborate – and that shed! – who hasn’t lusted after the shed at Whitespace?
ArtsATL: The coveted shed!
Barringer: The coveted shed! So with Cover going into the shed it made sense to go vintage and rare, to do one-offs, to add to the history that’s already in that space, and to name it Ephemera, in terms of the fleeting quality the space emanates, its seasonal character, the passing of time, and because it’s a rotating collection, not a stagnant set of books. A recent article in the New York Times’ fashion section describes the theme of impermanence in fall collections, and that’s exactly what I was thinking when I started Ephemera. They call it impermanence, I call it ephemera. It’s the same romantic sense about things that don’t last forever. It’s odd because even though they don’t last forever, these are books that have so much past, they’ve moved around from different places and owners, but in terms of that space, that shed, they’re impermanent. They leave with you.
ArtsATL: It sounds like one thing you’re describing is this desire to resist the narrative of “It’s really difficult to open a bookstore; why would you open a bookstore?” You’re selling books and creating spaces that accompany parts of Atlanta’s culture that are already thriving and visible.
Barringer: Yes, they tie into the culture we’re already living in. Books are just an added part that you can take home. (laughs) They can allow you to actively participate in these parts of culture that are thriving (art, music, food) – in a pretty approachable way.
As far as events go, Atlanta is a very social city, so it’s important to have them. The ones I enjoy the most are the ones that highlight something unique, and aren’t just a standard book signing. For example, my favorite one, the one we do every year, is for Sant Jordi day, a beautiful Catalonian holiday on April 23, during which lovers exchange books and roses as tokens of affection. I think it’s the best holiday of all time and, to me, a perfect Cover holiday – it’s romantic, it’s historical and it shows how important books can be on a personal level. It’s the kind of event I love hosting because when people come they not only feel the spirit of Cover, but they can engage with books in a setting that’s about something much larger – community and our relationships to these objects and these people, and learn about something new. It’s a completely satisfying event.
ArtsATL: Ephemera has that devotional feeling. It feels like a tiny church.
Barringer: The process of leaving my original space – which had so much character and texture that I was personally very connected with – had some challenging moments. While I knew the move was necessary for future growth, I often found myself missing the atmosphere that was so rich in the original space. But with Ephemera and the shed, and certainly during the opening night – it felt like Cover again. You know, when you turn that corner from Whitespace and you’re suddenly in this gorgeous, lush garden next to this fantastic house in Inman Park, and there’s a beautiful glowing shed and you open it and it’s full of vintage art books – it’s pretty amazing! Seeing what a great turnout we had for the opening night and the way people seemed to be really emotionally connected to it was both reassuring and also very familiar. It felt like old times. And what it taught me is that whether it’s at Ephemera, the Contemporary, or other future pop-ups, what sets Cover apart from the big-box stores or buying online is that it gives people an opportunity and atmosphere to emotionally connect with the experience of purchasing books, in a way that goes far beyond a simple sales transaction.
ArtsATL: What does the future of Cover look like? Will there be more Cover pop-ups?
Barringer: Well, we are very happy at Atlanta Contemporary and feel like it’s a great home base. As far as Ephemera goes, Susan and I are working out some ideas for a new version in 2018 – one that really emphasizes the seasonal aspect of the shed. At both Atlanta Contemporary and Ephemera, the direction I see us going is towards a concept of a more involved and more personal shopping experience. Retail is a very different thing these days. The standard model of people getting in their cars to drive across town to buy something just doesn’t hold up anymore. Online shopping has changed that entirely. So, I’d say, the future of Cover is to continue to find ways to offer something that you absolutely cannot get online and make it as amazing as possible.
Follow @coverbooksATL on Instagram for all Cover Books news and events. Cover’s main location at the Atlanta Contemporary is open Tuesday through Sunday during regular museum hours. Ephemera is open Wednesday through Saturday, 11 A.M. to 5 P.M., through October 7.