White People Wonder If He Knows He’s White. Black People Have Mixed Feelings. He Calls It Art.

Maz Ali Curator:

Jumel Terrace Books is a quaint shop in New York City. But there's something distinct about the place and its owner that often catches people off guard.

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Kurt Thometz: Book selling I thought was a much better life than being a writer, which is miserable. To wake up and look at a blank piece of paper is the first step to AA. I barely got through high school. So becoming a book dealer there was always something to talk about. I could talk about with anybody. Books.

I mean, I'm from where Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin are from. I was surrounded by rural white people in mid-state Minnesota. I just wanted to get away from them. I was taught to be antisemitic. I was taught to be racist. I guess I overreacted and became what I am. Sometimes people come in and it's an all-black bookstore, and they look at me. "How did this happen?" is what they want to know, and all I can say is, "I had a bad experience with white people when I was young."

I've come by my cynicism, honestly. I point the one afternoon four years ago when I was here on a Saturday and I had four groups of white people come into the store. One after another. They all left after spending half an hour to forty minutes talking with me, telling me how wonderful the place was, telling me how many books they have. The parting line for four different groups was always the same, as was the "No sale." On their way out each and every one of them said that they had so many books at home that if they brought another one home their significant other would throw them out.

They're all the phoniest motherfuckers that I could imagine. I was ready to close the store after that day. And, basically, I've been ready to close the store ever since. And every time I come right up to the brink, some kid comes in and gets it. Some library comes to me and I'm enthused about it again. And it is like my own little art installation thing. People come to the shop. They look around the shop. They look at me. I have white people say, "You know you're white, don't you?" And I have black people look around and say, "God, this is wonderful. Too bad I'd have to buy it from you," and they don't. I completely understand.

No matter what happens, whoever comes into that place is confronted by what's going on in their mind about race. What's art meant to do? It's meant to provoke you, to make you think. This provokes, this makes people think, this makes people question things, question themselves, and if I've succeeded in that, well, then it's a slightly seditious thing to do at this point, to have a bookstore. It's against the grain. It's threatening and I like that.

There may be small errors in this transcript.

Original by Narratively. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter. Jumel Terrace Books (Facebook) is located at 426 West 160th St., New York. Call ahead to visit because they're only open "by appointment, invitation, or serendipity." Kurt Thometz (aka "The Private Librarian") is a book collector and curator. Check out his blog, "Books Are Weapons."

Jul 18, 2014

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