I recently found myself in need of an inexpensive suit that didn’t look like I picked it up at a Salvation Army. Like countless other men in the same position, I headed to J.Crew. As I walked over the wide-planked wood floors of the store, I admired the chain’s decor: framed copies of jazz albums issued in the 1950s by Columbia and Blue Note, movie posters from the French New Wave, Japanese fashion magazines, and a case full of leather bracelets, flasks, and knives. While one man took my measurements, I cheerily pointed to a copy of Leonard Cohen’s book Beautiful Losers, which was nestled atop a display of shirts and quoted the author’s best advice: Cohen “never discusses his mistresses or his tailor.” The man laughed uncomfortably, then, looking at the book, admitted he wasn’t actually a tailor (“I just work here on the weekends”) and revealed that the copy of Beautiful Losers, along with the other books scattered around the store, were really just for show.
Long before Abercrombie & Fitch became a fixture in shopping malls across America, it was one of the first places Ernest Hemingway would visit when he came to New York. Fitzgerald and Plimpton favored Brooks Brothers, and Tom Wolfe crafted his trademark around New York tailor Vincent Nicolosi’s white suits. Well-dressed writers are far from an anomaly, but recently there’s been a twist in this trend: books are becoming the dressings for brands. Companies like Caulfield Preparatory and Gilded Age are lifting their names (and inspiration) from books. Kate Spade’s “Understated Is Overrated” fall campaign takes cues from Nicole Krauss’s latest cover. Rakish boutique Opening Ceremony carries issues of literary magazines like The Believer (as well as the magazine publishing this very piece). Marc Jacobs even commandeered a storefront in the West Village to make room for Bookmarc, a couture bookstore where, besides books, you’ll find the usual checkout impulse buys—Sharpies, notebooks, book lights—branded with Jacobs’s conspicuous logo.
Many would argue that this pattern began with Partners & Spade, headed by Andy Spade and Anthony Sperduti, which early on accessorized their silk and cashmere with a Viking Portable Library. The firm’s literary styling is an important facet of its brand identity: the pair has a six-book deal with HarperCollins. Then, in 2008, when they were contracted to design J.Crew’s first menswear boutique, the Liquor Store, they also partnered with the Strand, a New York literary institution, in a deal that officially established the bookstore as J.Crew’s source for rare art and music books and hard-to-find vintage hardcovers by Updike and Roth.
As a result, books are in abundant supply in the menswear world, from Earnest Sewn’s San Francisco location to the Ted Baker in New York’s Meatpacking District. The workwear brand Carhartt is in the middle of a rebranding, one that includes a capsule collection by designer Adam Kimmel and a slew of stores in well-to-do areas. The shelving inside is reclaimed wood and what is not covered by merchandise is filled with weathered books. Apartment Number 9, situated in Chicago’s Bucktown, has been labeled a menswear destination by magazines like Esquire and GQ. There, you can pair Steven Alan jackets with shirts by Band of Outsiders. There is no shortage of handcrafted pocket squares, but some customers can’t help asking if that copy of Middlesex is for sale. The book is part of a large stack taken from the owner’s personal collection. On an unseasonably warm day in the Windy City, I asked a fellow customer what he thought about books as objects of design in clothing stores. He lifted a red Jack Spade bag that obscured some of the titles and shrugged, “They make me think the store is smart.”
Books have always been a status symbol for some parts of society. Seneca complained about private libraries that were purely for show; kings collected books to display their power and cosmopolitanism; even Jay Gatsby kept “a high Gothic library, paneled with carved English oak and probably transported complete from some ruin overseas”—though the pages of his books, uncut, belie the artifice.
But this impulse to collect these books is slightly more complicated: it isn’t just about posturing but about a certain longing. The rustic, the outdated, the handcrafted and antiquated—these things seem ubiquitous. Cucumbers pickled in mason jars line the shelves at Whole Foods, men are buying bespoke suits styled after bygone eras, and hip kids are throwing Depression-era hobo-themed weddings. We’re a generation enthralled by authenticity and craftsmanship. Walter Benjamin wrote that in an era when everything was reproduced, nothing had the aura of originality. Now, most men’s clothing is made en masse—and we find ourselves missing the hand stitched. Likewise, many of our libraries consist only of e-books—and our old paperbacks seem to posses a one-of-a kind personality.
Freemans Sporting Club in New York, a shop established to “pay tribute to the vanishing art of American handmade goods,” seems to support this idea. They offer a carefully curated library, diverse enough that judicious customers can pick up issues of punk zine “Cometbus” and titles by Henry Roth and David Foster Wallace all at the same time. Les Robinson, Freemans’s self-proclaimed book enthusiast, says, “Books have always been a part of the store’s story.” He admits that at first, the books served mainly as decoration, but soon they became as much a tribute to a “vanishing art” as the machinist shirts and Winchester trousers.
My quixotic mission, which started at J.Crew, comes to an end at Amber Doyle’s Against Nature Atelier on the Lower East Side. While Doyle looks over the suit I’m about to buy, I can’t stop myself from wondering aloud whether her store has any particular ties to the literary world. The decor includes taxidermy animals, an oak desk, leather couches, and Persian rugs, and I have to admit that the shop feels like something out of a novel—the study of a Gogol character or the clubhouse where wealthy British colonialists spend their time drinking gin in Orwell’s Burmese Days. Nathaniel Adams, who is working on a book on the history of dandyism, also moonlights at Against Nature as a salesperson. His response to my question is so curt that it feels as if he’s tired of explaining, “It’s named after À rebours,” Adams says with perfect pronunciation, taking my suit to the back workroom to be tailored, “Joris-Karl Huysmans’s nineteenth-century novel.”
Jason Diamond is a writer who lives in New York, and is the editor of Jewcy.com and creator of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.