Marina Alessio On Bootstrapping A Startup – Her Contemporary Art Bookstore In Buenos Aires Is A Must See
Marina Alessio owns a bookstore and co-runs an art gallery in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This female entrepreneur has managed, in a short time to be known as running the most important contemporary art book store in Argentina, and arguably, in Latin America. Opened in 2008, Purr sells books independently published abroad as well as those independently published in Argentina, all of which are selected by Alessio herself.
Through Purr, Alessio has been able share her love of contemporary art, images, and the book form with Buenos Aires in way that wasn’t previously available to the Argentine public in Palermo or Buenos Aires proper.
I had chance to speak with Marina about her struggles bootstrapping a startup and about how she has managed to make it all work.
Here’s what she shared with me:
When did Purr open and how did you come up with the idea to open Purr?
In July 2008 Nicolás Barraza called me up with the idea of opening an art gallery. He had already started renting a space in a commercial building called Patio del Liceo which today is the center of emerging art and artists in Buenos Aires. Although today in that building there are five art galleries, a contemporary art museum, and artist workshops, at that time in 2008 is was pretty much empty with about four or five spaces being rented and those spaces were offices for carpenters, upholsters, and tailors. Today, they’re still there. It’s just that within the last two years artists moved in and now we’re all there in the building together.
So we opened Mite Gallery in July of 2008 and at about that time I came up with the idea of renting another space in that building so I could open a bookstore that sold books about contemporary art. I already had previous experience working in bookstores and the thing is that I found that my favorite books were always art books.
The books I wanted to buy were not ones readily available in Argentina and in addition, they weren’t typically available in the other three art book stores in Buenos Aires. So, my idea was to open a bookstore that sold the books that I liked and that no one was had in Buenos Aires. I ended up opening Purr in November of 2008.
What types of publications do you sell in Purr?
Well, the idea was always having an excellent selection of imported books covering contemporary art including photography, graphic design and fashion as well as being a place where Argentine publications that weren’t produced in high volume like independently published art books and zines could be sold. We also sell independently published works of literature.
Can anyone sell their publication in Purr?
Anyone who publishes independently can stop by Purr and show me their work and talk about it with me. From there we see whether or not it fits into the vision of Purr as an outlet and if it does, then we sell it in the store.
Why did you feel Buenos Aires needed something like Purr?
Well, until I opened Purr there simply wasn’t another bookstore in the city that specialized in contemporary art. My idea isn’t just that someone can stop in and buy the book they can’t get anywhere else, but also that they can stop in and check out all kinds of books that they’ve never even heard of from publishers or artists they never knew existed before. Besides the Internet, there aren’t many resources available in the city for someone to become familiar with contemporary art books.
As I mentioned before, even in the few bookstores in the city that sell similar books, it’s difficult to get certain newer editions because the distribution just doesn’t reach here.
I do all the leg work myself. I’m like a worker ant. I seek out the latest and best work available and I select them myself and do what I need to do to put them in Purr. For example, the American and European independent publishers would never send books to large stores or chain stores because they don’t distribute to Latin America. On the flip-side, a large bookstore here isn’t interested in carrying those books either because for them, it’s not what they’re going to make money off of, so they’re just not interested. So, I contact the publishers that I like so they can send me copies to sell and sometimes that’s one or two copies of each release.
Recently, what’s started happening is that some European publishers are contacting me directly because they want me to sell their books in Purr. Purr has slowly become part of network of curated bookstores located in various cities around the world that I didn’t really know even existed when I opened Purr. For example, there’s Post Poetics in South Korea, Ooga Booga in Los Angeles, and Motto in Berlin. So the publishers who sell their work in these places view Purr as the equivalent in Latin America.
On the other hand, at the time there wasn’t a bookstore here that concentrated on having available for sale a collection of Argentine fanzines and indepedently published work. There are a ton of people publishing this kind of work in Argentina and at the same time there were people who wanted to produce this kind of work but they never knew where they could sell and distribute them. With this in mind, I thought it important to make a space available for that work.
What was it like in the early days of Purr and what were some of the challenges you faced starting out?
I opened Purr with very little funding and with that I bought a small selection of imported books, some published in Argentina on consignment. The furniture was borrowed from my friends and the original space was hidden in the almost abandoned commercial space.
Three years later, with the art gallery having created a healthy art scene, I was able to move Purr to another space in the same building that’s larger and more accessible to pedestrian traffic. Also, the Purr selection is much more than it used to be.
Although, the challenge I faced and still continue to face in offering something so specific is how to reach the public, who has the purchasing power to consume art books:
- in a country where the majority of people don’t know about or simply aren’t interested in contemporary art;
- where the majority of people who are interested in these books are artists themselves;
- and the emerging artists in Buenos Aires, on the whole, aren’t always in a position economically to be buying these books.
My idea for Purr was always to sell a range of work from 5 peso fanzines to imported special edition books at $500 so that anyone who would walk in some afternoon could walk away with something in their hand, even if it was something small. But it’s that small percentage of customers that can buy these books at $200 or $300 who keep the business going and the challenge is also how to reach this public without a huge marketing budget. All of the “noteriaty” and “reputation” Purr has garnered in the last few years has been thanks to word of mouth.
Do you feel like you’re in the tradition of the culture of the Buenos Aires bookstore?
I don’t know. The truth is I wasn’t totally aware that Buenos Aires had that reputation abroad. I think I’m too much inside it all too see it from the outside, but I suppose Purr does fall into that idea.
What do you think Purr adds to the landscape of bookstores in Buenos Aires?
Essentially, a selection of curated contemporary art books, a taste of what’s happening in the world of independent publishing abroad, and a collection of Argentine independently published work. Also, it’s a space where we have poetry readings and independent book releases.
I know you’re also a visual artist. Has being exposed to so many books and having access to images of contemporary art impacted your own thinking or your own work?
I’m sure that’s the case, but I’m not sure the impact has been conscious. Looking at images and becoming familiar with the work of other artists is part of the education of being an artist. I’m exposed to that all the time through the bookstore and the gallery I co-run, Mite, so it’s as if I’m in the process of that “education” all the time. I think because of this my own thinking and my own work is changing and evolving constantly. I think I’ve grown as an artist the last two years more than the previous ten years in which I studied art and where I was only really exposed to my own work.
At the same time, it’s difficult to sometimes not feel that everything has been done already, but I think that conflict with your own work versus what has been produced already is positive in that it helps define one’s identity in the body of one’s own work.
Do you feel that the art gallery you co-run, Mite, and the bookstore somehow work together in any way?
Mite and Purr are essentially related projects. Inside of Purr there’s a wall which we use for Mite shows and above the bookstore, there’s a loft. In that loft, we keep some of the artwork from Mite. Both Mite and Purr are about our own selection on what’s happening in the contemporary art world and we have the same public in mind for both Mite and Purr.
As a small business owner, do you ever feel like you get a chance to “step away” from that world?
I never feel like I have chance to step away. When you have your own business and in addition it’s exactly what you love most in life, in this case art, you never stop working. We’re always discussing this very idea with a friend who is a critic, curator, and editor. We say we should use the “just call me Monday” phrase more often when we’re at parties and people are tying to talk to us about their work. And that happens all the time.
When someone wants a show at Mite or they just finished editing or publishing a work they want sold at Purr, they’re typically talking to me about it in those kinds of situations. I never end up saying “call me Monday” actually, and I do end up talking about the work with them. Sometimes it’s stressful but I also actually enjoy it. I talk and think about work when I’m going out and having fun but I also have fun and relax when I’m working.
What are some of your favorite books that you’re selling right now?
You and I, Ryan McGingley; Learning to Love you More, Miranda Jully & Harrell Fletcher; Rirkrit Tiravanija: A retrospective; Performing/Guzzling, Kim Gordon (signed copy). Just to name a few.
What artists do you think people should be paying attention to right now?
An Argentine artist: Marcela Sinclair
An artist from abroad: Terence Koh
I know you have your own solo show up right now. What’s the work about?
There are five photographs and a conceptual piece that includes a work of mine I did previously. Also, there’s a piece from the artist Paula Castro, who curated the show. In addition, there’s a small text on the wall that’s part of the lyrics of a Psychic TV song that inspired me a lot while I was working on this show.
I worked with ideas of deformity, death, the disfiguration of things, and about things that are at the moment when they cease to exist or are about to finish.
How can our readers get in touch with you?
Great, thanks for speaking with me today.