William Stout is a contrarian. Despite the downturn in the economy, especially the architecture economy, and the closing of independent bookstores, the owner of William Stout Architectural Books on San Francisco’s Montgomery Street opened a second outpost on Mission Street in late September. Not only is he reaching out to architects in SoMa, he is also acting as his own distributor for his growing booklist. Kenny Caldwell paid Stout a visit at his warehouse and office in Richmond, California.
The Architect’s Newspaper: How did you decide to open a second store on Mission Street at the California Historical Society?
William Stout: An employee of mine went down to the California Historical Society to see if they might sell some of our titles. We have books on Esherick, Royston, Church, Greenwood Commons. He came back and reported that the lady in the bookshop didn’t want to carry our titles. So I went up and talked to the director. I offered to run the bookstore for them because we need exposure south of Market. Instead of running their bookstore, he suggested we take the bookstore over. We sell the California Historical Society’s publications, but we are independent of the museum.
But they only have two or three exhibitions a year, right?
Yes, but we need exposure south of Market. I could never find the right space at the right rent. In addition to the architects and museum-goers, there is the new SPUR headquarters, and there are a lot of Academy of Art students in the neighborhood. That corridor must get two million people a year. It’s a great location.
Could you go back and describe the beginning of your bookselling?
The shop started in 1974 up in the Belli apartment building at 1218 Montgomery Street. Like now, it was a down time in architecture and there weren’t very many good bookstores on architecture in San Francisco. Steven Holl and I were sharing an apartment, and he convinced me to start a bookshop with the books I had. So I used my own library to stock the shop. I decided to take a trip to Europe and bought art and architecture books, and came back very excited.
We had a really nice apartment, and we made it into a small bookstore. It was just open during the lunch hour. We just put out a notice to the local architecture firms that they could buy books during the lunch hour. There must have been 30 architectural firms within 15 blocks. The apartment was on the top of Montgomery and Union Streets. We were living in the upper unit that had 180-degree views from Treasure Island all the way around to Russian Hill.
How did you keep it going?
In the beginning, the only way that it really worked is that Chuck Bassett [design partner at SOM] really liked books and acted as a patron. SOM had a wonderful library that was built around his tastes. So he came up one day and looked around and was really pretty excited about what he saw. He then went back and started a library committee to pick books and enhance the SOM library.
We were at 1218 Montgomery for three or four years. It was getting to a point where there were a lot of books. The building was old and in a sad state of repair, and I became worried that the floors wouldn’t hold the load.
Once I was walking back from the Alcoa building and turned up Osgood Place. As I was walking up the street, I noticed someone who was moving out of 17 Osgood Place and I took down the owner’s name, Barrish. He ran a bail bond company. He had a space available on the first floor, which contained three or four rooms and a kitchen and then a bedroom in the back. So I told him I’d be very interested in renting the space for a bookshop.
Two days later, he called and said, “I’ve decided you can have the space if you want it. But,” he said, “I don’t want anybody in there that’s going to bitch.” He said, “I’ve had too many people I don’t like.” That space is where the soft porn movie Behind the Green Door was filmed.
In the old bookstore on Osgood?
Yes, on the first floor. I was really intrigued with the urban aspect of that space. The alley, the garden in the back— it’s one of those urban spaces that you might find in London or New York City. I was there until ‘84. I was there about ten years, I think. It was a really nice place to live and work.
While I was there, they built a terrible building across the street that blocked the light and I decided to move. That’s when I found the present location at 804 Montgomery Street. When I first opened the Montgomery location, I was living in the basement space because the rent was so high and the shop had more space than I needed at the time.
How do you feel the bookshop influenced the architecture culture?
I never really thought of it at that level. My idea of running a bookstore in the beginning was to be able to add to my library. It was a place for me to buy books. Maybe there was an intention that with a better bookstore, it might influence the architectural culture. I don’t think the bookstore influenced the architects as much as maybe it did the patrons of architecture for this city.
People used to come in who were on building committees and buy books to learn about what they were supposed to know and look at work by prominent architects they might have heard of, or might want to hire.
So do you see the publishing side now growing?
I don’t think anyone really knows what’s going on. The Prairie Avenue Bookshop went under last month. What a cultural loss for Chicago.
Berkeley is a city that’s always been very favorable for booksellers, and yet they don’t have many bookstores anymore. Students basically buy on the Internet. We have finally found a way to work with Amazon where they sell our books, but they don’t undercut us.
What has been your biggest philosophical change? I don’t mean necessarily about bookselling, but about architecture and urban design.
Philosophically, I don’t think there’s a change for me. The difference between practicing architecture and selling books is that as a bookseller you have a product. If your client doesn’t like the product, they can bring it back for a refund. You don’t have to beat yourself up about something that your client doesn’t particularly care for because they may have misunderstood the process. Architecture has too many variables for me.
Bookselling and publishing allows me to have a library, which is what I’ve been working on all these years. I assumed that all architects would start building a library when they got out of school, like lawyers. The library is really about inspiration and sharing knowledge. That was the reason that I have my library and my bookstore: to share with the community.
I think it’s interesting how the hobby evolved into the bookshop and then publishing, but in the end all of it supports the original passion.
Basically, I am a collector. I love to buy things. I travel all over to see other booksellers and share architecture. Each fall I try to go to the Frankfurt Book Fair to keep abreast of the latest publishing trends and see what the latest direction is, also to see my book friends. It has always been my intention to have a shop where you find rare and unusual books on architecture and design. Books that years after you’ve bought them remain special. A case in point is I just found in my library a Becher & Becher book on early industrial building photographs that I bought from George Wittenborn in 1973. It was signed by the Bechers. It brought back fond memories of one of New York City’s great booksellers. I hope in years to come people can say the same thing about me.