Booksellers of Budapest: ISBN Books + Gallery

  • 13 Mar 2023 5:59 AM
  • Hungarian Literature Online
Booksellers of Budapest: ISBN Books + Gallery
The idea was to create a space with two main functions: contemporary art bookshop and a nonprofit project gallery. – HLO spoke to Bea Istvánkó, the owner of ISBN books + gallery, an independent contemporary art bookstore and gallery space in Budapest's eighth district.

Dóra Vincze: ISBN has a unique concept, a combination of gallery and bookshop focusing on the contemporary art of the Central-European region. What is the story behind the shop?

Bea Istvánkó: The ISBN was established in 2017 as a completely private initiative and a one-person company. The idea was to create a space with two main functions: contemporary art bookshop and a nonprofit project gallery.

The primary goal of ISBN books+gallery is to map, collect, exhibit, and distribute contemporary art publications, exhibition catalogs, zines, art books, photobooks, and theoretical publications, both domestic and regional, Hungarian and foreign language, new and second-hand. But we also provide individual and group exhibition possibilities for Hungarian and Central and Eastern European young and middle generation artists and curators in the ISBN gallery space.

The shop is also a location for meetings, so we regularly organise and conduct professional programs and events related to artistic publications and related to our exhibitions.

DV: How and why did you become a bookseller?

BI: Actually I’m not a bookseller, although I’m selling books on a daily basis. According to my degrees I’m an art historian, a contemporary art curator, and a critic. In addition to the shop I’m doing my PhD at Moholy-Nagy Art and Design University researching contemporary publishing as an artistic and design practice.

And finally, I’m teaching in the Art Theory Department of the Academy of Fine Arts Budapest. So I think my personal mission is to communicate contemporary art to the widest possible audience, and books are quite good toolkits for this. I’m also a researcher, so I really want to provide more visibility to those beautiful but really unique and limited publications that I have.

DV: Which book (or books) do you enjoy recommending?

BI: This is a really frequent question and usually I have to say all of them. I work with more than 500 partners and have a personal connection with each of them. I know at least a bit about my books, and since I am the one who is curating the selection, I have emotional feelings with nearly everything. But if someone enters the shop, they will find big tables right in the middle, stacked with all the hot topics and fresh stuff.

Besides the Hungarian books, we have a continuously growing international selection, mostly in English, so we're always trying to provide the freshest publications to our local audience. These books often concentrate on the hot topics of contemporary art theory, like the ecological revolution, feminism, social equality, etc. from a visual perspective. I think this section would be enjoyable for everyone, not just for art professionals.

DV: And what do you personally enjoy reading?

BI: In the shop I have to read a little bit of everything, at least the footer. Regarding my personal selection, it is paramount that they are highly visual.

They are book objects more than than classical books, so sometimes the reading material is really minimal. I really love this tactile experience, so I also have a private collection which is growing none too slowly. If I’m reading in my freetime it's usually contemporary bestsellers. This is my guilty pleasure.

V: You offer plenty of events and exhibitions. Could you tell us more about them?

BI: Yes, we organise a lot of events related to books. The most common type is the book launch. Our partners or independent artists usually contact us to host their programme, such as a lecture or a round-table conversation related to their recent materials.

Since 2017 we have hosted music performances, dance shows, many fanzine workshops, and various other events. Our next event looks like it will be a round-table about motherhood and fatherhood versus contemporary art praxis.

DV: If you had a little more space, or a little more money, are there any things you would like to add?

BI: Books, books, and books. When I opened the store I had no idea about the variety and the number of beautiful and cool publications related to contemporary visual culture. In the past 5 years

I discovered there are thousands of incredible international publications, so I would love to be ordering much more than what the money and space currently allows. If I were a millionaire I would contact all the international art publishers and buy at least one copy of all their books and zines.

DV: Why is it important for large publishers to work with independent shops such as yours?

BI: I think for the large mainstream publishers it is not that important. They have big stores, high visibility, and a lot of customers. But there are a lot of independent publishing houses or smaller publishers (in Hungary and internationally too) who release alternative, underground, or subcultural publications.

They don’t usually have the chance to show their books in a big bookshop network, so they need the small independent shops. That’s the situation for the self-publishers too. If an artist is publishing a book or fanzine on his own, he can’t contact a professional bookshop network, so he can only sell on his own, or through smaller bookshops and designer shops. That is why shops like ISBN are important for them, and that is why independent publishers are important for me too.

DV: Is there a difference between the community you build and reach via social media, like your Instagram page, and the people showing up at events, or just popping in to the store?

BI: I think the customers of the bookshop are mostly the same people who like our social media profiles. It frequently occurs that they are coming to me and looking for something that they saw on Instagram a few days ago.

But on Instagram we can reach an international audience too, so I think Instagram is the main reason that approximately 40-50% of our visitors are from abroad. The exhibition space draws a different crowd, and it’s always changing according to our current exhibition.

DV: Why should Budapest folks looking for a book shop with you rather than ordering from online retailers?

BI: As I mentioned before, my selection is really special; tangibility is super important in the case of these books. The design, the typography, the binding, the printing technology are as important as the visual or the written content. 

Even though we do have a web catalog, we don’t have a webshop, because 90% of our customers would rather visit us in person to be able to touch, feel, sometimes even smell the book. I have to do a lot of online shopping from abroad for the store, and even with my wealth of experience, I’m always surprised when I open the delivery box and finally I see a book in real life I’ve never seen before.

Our customers also don’t always know exactly what they want, that happens a lot. They are looking for something inspiring or they just want to fall in love with something. I would suggest that before your next online order, just come and look around! Browse a bit in our cosy environment, sit down to read on our comfy sofa, visit our current exhibition, and bring home a nice experience and a beautiful book for your collection!

For more information you can visit ISBN's Facebook page or website.

Drop by the shop to pick up a book, or check the current exhibition, at Víg utca 2., Budapest, 1084.


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