A Photographers Place
A Bookshop For The Rest Of Us

From his balcony vantage point, Harvey Zucker keeps an eye on A Photographers Place.
Photos © 1999, Mason Resnick, All Rights Reserved

You know those bookstores where you walk in and right near the entrance there's a cafe with seating for maybe 40 people, and there's a menu that offers dozens of selections, many of which you can't pronounce, and there's a rack of local and out-of-town newspapers so you can spend a caffeine-fueled hour or two catching up on what's going on everywhere, and across from the cafe there's a little stage for live music performances and readings, and farther on into the store there are overstuffed chairs and comfortable sofas so you can kind of settle in for some serious sampling--and maybe think about who these people in here are and how come they have all this time on a weekday to sip cafe lattes and browse the book de jour? You know those bookstores?

Well, this is not one of those.

First thing, it's called A Photographers Place, so you'll find only photo books and photo-related stuff. And while you're welcome to spend time browsing, there's no place to sit down; matter of fact, if the shop is even halfway crowded, moving around at all becomes dicey. The place is a scant 1500 square feet, which doesn't seem nearly enough. (And it's not. No way this works without the big storage area in the building's basement.) But for a person with even the most casual interest in photography, this is the big store; in photography circles, it's legendary.

All photography, all the time.

Harvey Zucker, owner and proprietor, has been at the 133 Mercer Street address in New York City's SoHo district for 17 years, having come to the bookstore business by a somewhat roundabout route. In his career he's been a partner in a photography studio, a photo writer (long-time readers of Shutterbug might recall that Zucker used to write about photography books for the magazine), a teacher of the daguerreotype process, and a seller of remaindered books at flea markets. It was the latter role that led to the idea of a store, which he first opened at a different location in 1979; it was in 1982 that he moved the shop to its current address.
In addition to the store, Zucker sells his books by mail order, issuing a newsprint catalog of 16 pages densely-packed with descriptive listings and photos of book covers. Harvey writes, edits, and designs the catalog on the office computer, and it's mailed several times a year to the 12,000 names on his customer list. It accounts for about 45 percent of the shop's sales. In the store, the sales and management duties fall to nine employees, of which seven, including Zucker, are full-timers on a seven-day-a-week schedule.

What A Photographers Place doesn't have--other than coffee and a place to sit down to drink it--is a web site. Zucker is not a believer in the Internet. "I don't think it would serve me well--it would take more time to service than it's worth. If I didn't have a shop and a going mail-order business, then sure, it would be a terrific way to be a one or two-person operation." Besides, Zucker doesn't think very kindly of people who spend a lot of time on the Net. "Browsers sit and stare at the tube. They don't motivate themselves to take pictures or buy books."

So who is motivated to buy books? Who walks into A Photographers Place? "There are two categories of customers," Zucker says. "Camera people and picture people. The picture people outnumber the camera people, although many of the picture people are camera people." He defines "picture people" as those "who buy monographs, works of specific photographers, and books about photo exhibits." And camera people? "Obviously, they buy books about cameras--they're the people who collect cameras and information about cameras; people have always wanted camera manuals."

Further, the camera people break into two categories: working people who like cameras and shoot with them, and collectors who collect cameras. Both are viable markets for Zucker. "Probably for me the collector is the better market," he says. "Most camera stores carry the basic how-to books and camera manuals, but they don't carry a lot about collecting cameras or camera collections. We're heavy into that because it comes from my own background, and my connections to the American Photographic Historical Society." His connections to the organization include the fact that in 1975 he helped found it.

There is also walk-in tourist traffic, which probably falls in and out of all the categories. "It's a heavy tourist area, all of SoHo," Zucker says. "When I moved into this street we were the only retail store on the block; now there are about six shops and a nightclub. There's constant traffic on the block." Which would make Zucker very happy if it weren't for the downside: more traffic means higher rent.

"The tourist trade we attract consists of a lot of European and Japanese people who have come to New York for some other reason, but they know the shop exists and they'll come down here to seek it out. And we do a lot with impulse traffic trade--people on a Sunday floating around looking at things, they see the shop and come in. But mostly we get a very good European and Japanese trade, and that's what built our foreign mailing list." Zucker finds that, in general, the Europeans and Japanese who come in "are much more sophisticated than the normal traffic we get. They know photography and are willing to give scarce and out-of-print books their due."

Lest you get the wrong idea, A Photographers Place isn't all about rare or out-of-print books. The shop carries lots of new books and a smaller amount of used, in-print books, close-outs, and remainders. "For books in print," Zucker says, "we try to carry everything we can find out about."

That said, there are the rare, out-of-print, and scarce volumes. "We have about 4000 of those," Zucker says. From a total of...? "I have no idea of the total number of books that are in here," he says in a tone that suggests he'd be hard-pressed to think of a use for that particular bit of information.

The shop won't hunt for people's wants and wishes. "It's too expensive and there are specialists who do that. But we will take your name and put your book on a want list, and if that book comes in--in a week from now or two years--we'll call you and tell you we got it. But we don't hunt for it."

Any unusual requests? "No," he says, "but we've had the usual disgusting requests for you-know-what kind of books or you-know-what kind of photos."

While he's not in the business of dealing in rare, out-of-print books, once and a while he comes across a treasure. He recalls that the most valuable book he's had was Steichen the Photographer, by Carl Sandburg. "It featured over 100 gravures of Steichen photographs. Only 925 copies were printed, and each one was numbered and signed by both men. It went for $25,000."

The out-of-print books often come from people giving up their personal collections, and from estates and private libraries. People seek Zucker and he seeks them. "The out-of-print book market in photography has become one of the hottest out-of-print book markets. Every dealer in the country is panting for stuff, so we can't sit back and wait for books to come to us. We have a large, built-in audience, though. They know we buy, and we advertise in various places."

Books plus a manageable collection of vintage cameras.

So what's in the personal library of a self-described bookaholic? "I have over 5000 books in my own collection," Zucker says, "including my own copy of Steichen the Photographer. You don't get into a business like this without appreciating what's out there and wanting some of it for yourself." Just about any book that comes out on his favorite photographic subject--the daguerreotype--he'll take home.

In addition to books, A Photogra-phers Place features a selection of vintage cameras--"some oddball ones I tend to put on the shelves without a price on them"--that pretty soon become part of the fixtures. "There's an ongoing turnover of some old classics, and there's always one or two nice woodies." Zucker doesn't include the cameras in the catalog's listings. "You can't put unique items in the catalog, items you have only one copy of. My feeling is that if you disappoint people, they're not likely to come back, so I don't put in things I'm going to sell out of unless I just can't avoid it."

Zucker buys almost everything that's offered to him--"unless it's real garbage or things I feel are stolen." Stolen? "Oh, yeah, it's happened. Once a guy sold us a shopping bag full of stuff--mostly prints and a few older cameras. Over the next day or two we started going through the stuff and identifying it, and I suddenly realized that I'd seen several of the items listed in a catalog from an auction held a month before. That's crazy, I thought, so I called up the people at the auction house and told them that someone had just walked in with some stuff that seems identical to the lot in their catalog. They called back and told me that the items were from lots that hadn't been sold, and they'd been stolen from their warehouse."

Zucker will throw people out of the store if he spots someone trying to steal. And he'll throw them out for other reasons, too. "Sometimes because they're obnoxious," he says. "New York is known for obnoxious people, and I can be as obnoxious as the next person. There are people who are unreasonable about a price or repeatedly ask stupid questions, and at a certain point patience runs out." Perhaps because of his admittedly limited patience, he stays off the sales floor, preferring the balcony above the shop, where he does his work. "I'm here to manage the shop, not to be out there selling books. My major function is to find books to sell."
Right now he'd like to find Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment, a desirable volume that's getting harder and harder to locate. "It was priced at $12.95 back in 1959. The dust jacket is a Matisse lithograph, and art dealers take the jacket and sell it as a Matisse lithograph for six or seven hundred dollars."

We wondered why a book like that isn't reprinted. "That one probably will be," Zucker says, "but you've got to remember that publishers are business people, and I don't know if the demand for a book like that would justify reprinting three or four thousand copies. What we in the photo book business think is a big demand may not be near the big numbers publishers want. I could sell five or 10 copies of that book in the course of a year at $700 or $800 each, but if it were reissued and priced at $59.95, is it going to sell 5000 copies?"
Zucker has, by the way, a copy of that book in his personal library. It's signed by Cartier-Bresson, and he wouldn't sell it for $1500. "I bought it from someone who'd known Cartier-Bresson from a camera store he used to frequent."

So The Decisive Moment is not one of the books you're going to find on the crammed shelves of A Photograhers Place. But if you happen to find yourself in New York City, you might want to wander on down to SoHo and browse the volumes Zucker does offer for sale. If a trip to the city isn't in your future, you can request a catalog by dropping a note to A Photographers Place, 133 Mercer St., NYC, NY 10012, or phoning (212) 431-9358.