Just south of the Berks Station on Front Street, Ulises, Philadelphia's first arts-dedicated bookshop, has opened. Ulises stocks contemporary artists' books and independent art publications, welcoming patrons to buy or browse local, national, and international titles on contemporary art, design, critical studies, and visual culture.
Co-founders Nerissa Cooney, Lauren Downing, Kayla Romberger, Gee Wesley, Ricky Yanas, and Joel Evey envision the not-for-profit bookstore as a hub space that will host exhibitions, lectures, conversations, and other programs organized around quarterly themes. "Active Voice" is the inaugural theme, which they define as "voice in relation to listening, identification, and political representation." The accompanying exhibition features video by Hannah Black and sound work by Steffani Jemison, and a reading station with titles selected by Performa curator Mark Beasley.
In a modest converted garage space rented from artist Tim Belknap, Ulises hosted a robust crowd for its opening-night celebration Nov. 12. Philadelphia artist Katya Gorker said the reading room atmosphere reminded her of sculptor Theaster Gates' Dorchester Projects library and archive in Chicago and the Megawords (a Philadelphia zine) temporary storefront in Chinatown in 2008. "This is a social space that will provide intellectual and creative resources, and a space for dialogues to happen," said Gorker.
The Ulises co-founders joined up in 2015, looking to give Philly its own art-book hub. They got a big boost when the collective was invited to create a pop-up reading room at Reading Terminal Market in September. The invitation came with a grant that enabled the members to set up display shelves and start networking with publishers. In addition to revenue from book sales and pending grant applications, the collective is fund-raising via Indiegogo. As of November 17, with four days left until the campaign deadline, 187 backers have contributed $11,110, meeting 56% of the $20,000 goal - the amount the group believes will allow them to sustain the space for a year, paying artists and contributors.
Ulises joins a small but vital group of independent Philadelphia bookstores, including Wooden Shoe Books in Queen Village and Joseph Fox in Rittenhouse Square. Some indie bookshops and the Institute of Contemporary Art (where two Ulises co-founders are on the curatorial staff) offer some art publications, but Ulises will offer a more extensive selection of contemporary titles and will undoubtedly be the only place in town where you can browse those titles in person. Works by such seminal contemporary artists as Donald Judd (Complete Writings) and Mierle Laderman Ukeles (Seven Work Ballets) sit alongside less predictable titles, like Larissa Pham's Fantasian, published by Badlands Unlimited.
Though the name Ulises conjures the Joycean protagonist who ventures on a long odyssey, it is intended as a tribute to the work and legacy of Ulises Carrión, a Mexican poet and conceptual artist who founded the Amsterdam bookshop Other Books & So that was active from 1975 to 1978.