Don Henderson curates the most popular book store in D.C. He is the book buyer for the National Gallery of Art, a museum that had more than four million visitors in 2016 alone. While not all of them are Henderson’s customers, a good handful shuffled through, picked up, and skimmed his collection. Tucked into a cozy corner of the vast museum, the book store has a catalogue to compete with art on the walls. At any give time, the store stocks 3,000 books dealing with (or centered around) art. From film to architecture to design, the breadth of knowledge is impressive. And that’s not including the small, but handpicked selection of foreign language books scattered throughout the shelves.
The store is busy, even in the middle of the weekday, as people comb through the displays picking up holiday gifts or presents for themselves. It’s a calming place, with its warm lighting and holiday decorations. I can see why someone would want to spend 20+ years here.
Can you tell me about the first job you ever had?
I can. I’ve been a book guy all my life. I started out very young I don’t know if I was seven or eight, but I was fascinated by libraries. So I got out some construction paper and I made some library cards and I went to my older sisters room and I took out her latin textbook and her math book and all of her books in her bookcase and I took it down to the curb and I loaned all of her books out to the kids in the neighborhood. She somehow was able to get her books back. But that was my first book job, I’ve always been fascinated by books.
How young were you when you started reading?
I was very young, it was before school. I was always going through the library and then slowly started to buy my own books, if I could I, somehow managed to convince my parents to buy a couple of volumes of the Time Life art series. My first one was a Van Gogh and I just copied out the paintings from the book.
Were your parents both readers, were there a lot of books in your house?
We had the encyclopedia Britannica. We did not have a lot of books in the house but they raised a lot of readers, they really stressed education and everyone went to college, so we were all big readers.
Can you tell me a little about how you started at the gallery, you said you’ve been here 23 years, so have you always in this department?
Well, before coming to the Gallery I had been buying and managing architecture book stores. The job opening was announced here and a sales rep that I worked closely with told me about it. So I started here as the book buyer and that’s what I am still. I’m very happy in that role, that is my calling
How do you study to be a book buyer? How do you get in that industry?
That’s a good question because in Europe in other countries it’s a trade, so you have an actual apprenticeship and certification. Here it’s not it’s just any kind of retail, but you gain your experience starting out in being a cashier, or a stock clerk, in my case I was a book check at university bookstore in Ann Arbor. It had an underground apartment where all the textbooks were. You took your class schedule to the long desk, they called down on the intercom and I went scurrying around like a rat underground to gather the textbooks that were sent up on a dumbwaiter to the students. So that was my first book job.
How did that transfer into a career?
The whole time I was a student at university, I worked in our university bookstore. After, when I decided that my masters in German was going to be the end of the road for me scholastically, I decided to go to my next love which was book selling and my first professional job was as the foreign textbook buyer for the Indiana University bookstore. I loved that job because I have a big interest in foreign languages and so I bought all of the Italian, Spanish, French, German books for students. Through that job I was introduced to the dean of the french department who happened to know the head of the Indiana Society of Architects. They had a position for a manager and book buyer for their store and that’s how I started in architecture.
Were you interested in architecture before you started that job?
Oh very much, even though my scholastic background is German literature I’ve always had a wonderful interest in art and in architecture.
Would you say that architecture books are a specialty here?
Yes, because our buildings are really icons of architecture. We have a nice architecture section and we have books on landscape design. We have books to support our film department and then of course art. All aspects of art history.
What was your art education like?
I had no formal art education, I drew pictures all the time when I was a kid. I made a wonderful painting of a Van Gogh from the Art Institute of Chicago that matched my parents bedroom colors and I gave it to them as a present and they put it on the wall. I don’t have a formal art education, but working here with every exhibition, or with every new title, it’s a crash course in the work of that artist or that time period. I do a lot of research for exhibitions and trying to come up with a list that supports the show. In doing that I really feel like I could say that I have I have an art history degree.
Is there any artist you had no idea existed before you took this job who has become your favorite?
Absolutely, hands down it’s a German sculpture from 16th century. We had an exhibition of his work and it just blew me away. His name is Tilman Riemenschneider and he does these gorgeous, graceful, wood sculptures. I didn’t know anything about the technique involved, I didn’t know about his work, but there’s something about it that resonated with me and I cherished that exhibition. Then on a trip to Germany, a German friend and I went on a Riemenschneider tour going to the churches where he had done altar pieces and to museums where they had works of his. That’s the kind of the thing that happens in an environment like this, you’re on fire with this passion for a new artist or a new aspect of art.
I’m glad you brought up the German, are you still fluent?
Yes. To keep it from rusting up I’m in a German book club. We’ve been together for almost 20 years, we meet once a month and it’s people from all walks of life all trying to keep their german going. We read books in German and we discuss them in German and we eat and have a good time.
Does being fluent in another language make your job easier?
Absolutely, I use the languages quite a bit and sometimes the gallery will make use of the language… During the preparations for the Riemenschneider exhibition I was on a call to a small parish church in Germany, to just speak in German about this loan. It’s come in handy to trips to the annual Frankfurt Book Fair which is the biggest book fair in the world, it’s every October around Columbus Day. I have contacts with German publishers and I speak German there. One time in particular I was in the booth of an art publisher and they had this deluxe edition of an art book and in English we were talking about it and the salesperson there said, “You really should act fast, there’s a limited quantity available and it’s really selling well.” I said, “Well, I’ll give it some thought,” and I wandered off to the side of the booth and I heard the sales rep and another publisher talking in German the sales rep said, “I can’t sell any copies of this book, we need to mark it down…” So I wandered around a little bit more then I went back and in German I said, “Thank you again for taking the time to show me that book. Good luck with it.” That made it all worthwhile, all that time in the language lab, memorizing verbs…
All for that one moment. I’m glad you brought up the book festival, can you tell me a little bit about how much research goes into acquiring books for the gallery? How many festivals do you have to go to?
I generally go to two. There is the major English language book fair which is in New York usually every year. That’s English language publishers who come from all over the world to show their books. Then the Frankfurt book fair is 250,000 people, ten halls, every language is represented. It’s the German readers book fair so it has this amazing energy. The German reading public is a vibrant reading public. So I go to those two shows and that is a big tool for me to source new books. I always try to find unique books, things that will serve our scholarly visitors and our general interest visitors, but the main resource for me is publishers and their sales teams. They come to visit me and they bring catalogues, or they have an online catalogue.
Books are presented seasonally, so all of the new titles are presented one at a time and we discuss the different aspects and nuances of each new book and I have to sit down with them and I have to sit down with that book and try to think of which customer, and we have a big range of customers, is going to be the perfect match for that book. I always think of book selling as a kind of matchmaking. So you think, this person here and this book would be great together. I always have a little bit in my mind who the customer is when I sit down and I look at these new books. I try to have books that appeal to people who have a broad interest in art, or people who come here and are just having some art awakening and they’re interested in finding out new things. We’re certainly a big resource for scholars who come from all over the world, so when I’m at the Frankfurt Book Fair, I’m sourcing books in Italian, German and French. Things that are hard to find.
How big is the foreign language section?
They’re peppered throughout the book store. It’s a small percent, it’s just little gems that I’ve brought in. Especially books about artists where there is nothing published in English.
I was told you have a few repeat customers who you think of specifically when you go on these book buying expeditions.
We do have some very wonderful customers. We know their tastes. A lot of times I’ll see a book and I’ll know that it’s perfect for this customer or perfect for that customer, so I’ll buy one for that customers and one for the store.
How do you develop these kind of relationships? The bookstore caters to so many people, many of which are transient. Is that difficult?
It’s very difficult. I’m very glad that you asked that because we’re very lucky here. We have two booksellers on the floor and they’re my eyes and ears. They tell me what people are asking for. If there’s a book that doesn’t exist, then I can kind of keep in my mind that a customer asked for a book on cheese in art. Then when someone presents a book on cheese in art, I’m ready to buy that book. We have just the full range of customers and those booksellers in the store are an incredible resource for me. I have a reorder buyer that is a bookseller as well and he is an excellent resource.
Is that the main way you gauge trends when it comes to what people are interested in?
I do. Of course there are trade journals in every profession and in book selling we have Publisher’s Weekly and other trade resources so I can stay on top of what is selling. We have a very narrow focus, but that doesn’t mean our customers have a narrow focus. So there might be some sort of crossover book that I’ll here about that I can bring in.
Have there been any trends in the last year that have really stood out?
It’s on the wane of course, but there was the huge trend of adult coloring books. You wouldn’t necessarily think that would be a big part of our business, but it really took off. It was the kind of thing where we didn’t see it coming. We had some books that we had poised as children’s books and we noticed that adults were buying them. Then the very popular books started to come out and we bought those. We could hardly stay in stock and the publisher couldn’t keep them in stock. Then more books started to come in and we would buy them and the section grew, and the demand grew. It was incredible. I think that trend showed us that people needed a creative outlet. Even if they were very pressed for time and were using the coloring books on their airplane trips, or on their commute, or they had a coloring book evening with the gals… Whatever it was, people found a way to express themselves with those books. That trend has died out in the general trade, but we still do very well with those adult coloring books.
Seasonally, what books tend to be popular around the holidays? What are people buying for themselves or as gifts?
The wonderful thing about book selling is that we have almost as many books to sell as we have customers. We don’t have very many breakout best sellers usually, but we do have some books that are very strong. This fall, of course, the Walter Isaacson biography of Leonardo Da Vinci is a standout bestseller for us. We had an incredible event with him. He came in at a not so great time, it was a Monday afternoon and we had a capacity crowd. Our large auditorium was full, our small auditorium was full and we sold a lot of books. It was a wonderful opportunity for people to actually sit down and meet with one of their favorite authors and have that contact one on one.
The amount of free events NGA does that are open to the public is insane. It’s really a gem for the city.
We have excellent programming and for book people there’s a series of book events, so you have these fascinating lectures, then you have that opportunity to meet your favorite author in many cases. If for whatever reason you miss the book talk, it will often be a podcast later, so you can go on the site and listen to the lecture.
Do you have any say when it comes to the author and book programming?
All of that is administered by our academic programs office, but what I do when I sit down with publishers and their representatives… a lot of times they give me what’s called an advanced reader’s copy of an important book and I will send that to the academic programs office for their consideration. A lot of times they’ve invited that author to come and speak to our visitors. In that way, I’ve been able to let them know about a book that’s coming out in six months that’s going to be really exciting.
You guys sell a lot of books based on the exhibitions that are currently in the Gallery… But I can only imagine that when it comes to some of the more popular artists there are too many books to choose from. How do you narrow that down?
That’s one of the hard things. When you’re getting ready for an exhibition, what I normally do is work very closely with the curator. I’ll comb through the bibliography of the exhibition catalogue in its draft form and I’ll start to look at what’s available. I will talk to the curator and get some insight on what their recommendations might be, but then I do have space considerations. We might have an exhibition shop which is limited in size and I can only bring in so many titles there. Then I’ll have an overflow section in the bookstore. We have an online shop and I’ll put a lot of the books there, but that’s a big question, how many books can I fit? How do I decide which books are the most important?
How far in advance do you start planning for a new exhibition?
I try to really get a handle on things six or eight months in advance. A lot of times, for a big show, there might be books that are out of stock indefinitely at the publisher or out of print. So I can talk to a publisher and tell them about an exhibition that’s coming and they might decide to reprint the book, if it’s a big tour. So I like to start that kind of research early on. Sometimes when we have an exhibition which is about a foreign artist, or school of art, then I will source that far in advance because I’m looking at non English language books that I have to import. Shipping is a big consideration.
Do you ever get tired of recommending books to people? Are you ever like, “Please recommend them to me?”
Never! That’s what’s so great about a bookstore. You go to the bookstore, you’re excited about the art that you’ve just seen, you have questions, you want to learn more, and if you engage in a conversation with a bookseller you might find out more about that specific subject but the conversation is going to open up and you’re going to discover other things that you didn’t know about previously. It’s a conversation. We learn from the customers too. A lot of our customers are well traveled and they’ll tell us an about an exhibition they saw in Paris and I’ll try to source that book because it will be perfect for us.
Where do you shop in D.C. for books?
I love a small bookstore on Capitol Hill called East City Books. They are a wonderful resource of non-Art books for me. One of the exciting things in bookselling is that independent bookselling has been on a bit of a rebound. A lot of communities now are supporting small, community based independent bookstores and it’s a trend that is very exciting to see. I think now is an especially good time for young people, if they are people like myself who dream of owning their own bookstore, now is a good time for them to look at their community and see if there is a chance for it to support one of these vibrant, exciting, community orient bookstores.
When you need a palate cleanse from art books, what do you go for?
I read a lot of literary fiction… and actually I’m in another book club. [Laughs] I’m sorry. It’s a never ending series of book clubs… It’s an English language book club and we read a lot of books that have won an award or have been nominated for an award. Recent books, so things that have received the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize or something like that. We have these very wonderful discussions around those books. I really believe that reading is like your diet. You are what you eat and you are what you read. It’s important to curate the books that you choose because it’s very important for your worldview and how you engage other people.
Do you have a favorite book you read this year? Or do you have a book you would specifically recommend for readers of this piece?
I really enjoyed the new biography of Bunny Mellon that came out this fall. That’s something I tell a lot of friends of mine, particularly who have an interest in the National Gallery of Art, because she had exquisite taste and she had a big impact on the Gallery. The book is fascinating and deals with her life, her marriage with Paul Mellon and her collecting. She had an interest in 19th century French art, but also in modern contemporary art. Fascinating person.
Do you consider the Gallery bookstore to be apart of D.C.’s local bookstore scene?
I do think of us as a part of the D.C. book scene and we’re kind of a hidden treasure. We have a huge range of books available about photography, film, landscape design. It’s a narrow focus but it has a huge breadth and depth I’m very proud of.