When it comes to recommending books, my friend Sadie Stein has a perfect record. From the pitch-black melancholia of Alfred Hayes’s In Love to the fast-talking sardonic humor of Iris Owens’s After Claude, she knows not only what makes a good book, but more important, what makes a good book for me. This is her gift. And now she’s putting it to use with a new venture called S.O.S. Libraries, a company she has cofounded with her husband to build libraries. Her methodology for assembling and displaying books on behalf of clients is layered and takes time, and if ever there were a hole in the market, she’s found it—after all, personal libraries are making quite a comeback in the age of COVID-19. Here, Stein explains the need she’s looking to fill.
ELLE Decor: What is the S.O.S. Libraries elevator pitch?
Sadie Stein: We are personal book shoppers. We work with individuals, with decorators, with hotels, with restaurants—with anyone who wants help finding the right books. We can fill a whole room from scratch, offer three books for your nightstand, or find the perfect book for an impossible-to-buy-for friend.
ED: How did you come up with the idea?
SS: It happened very organically, and then all at once. All my life I’ve been a recommender and a lender and a book giver. I love to share my enthusiasms and match friends to the perfect books. One day a decorator friend asked me to supply just the right books for a client’s guest room, then another friend wanted to thank a generous host with the perfect 100 books for his surf shack.
ED: I suspect libraries have been top of mind for you since you wrote a book about them last year.
SS: Yes, I wrote the text for Bibliostyle (Clarkson Potter), with Nina Freudenberger and the photographer Shade Degges. We had the chance to visit several dozen of the world’s most remarkable private libraries. It got me thinking, What is a library? In a world where everything’s available but the choice can be overwhelming, how do you begin building one?
ED: And Sarah McNally, the founder of McNally Jackson Books, played a role as well?
SS: Sarah asked my husband and me to curate a section of secondhand books for her stores in Brooklyn and the South Street Seaport in Manhattan. When the virus came and no one could visit our beautiful Old and Rare Room, I thought, Why not bring the room to them?
ED: Have you noticed a sudden uptick in home-library consciousness?
SS: This is a moment when people are really committing to their homes and the books in them—making their personal libraries as rich and beautiful and useful as possible. You can find almost any book online, if you know what you want—but it has never been harder for the right book to find you. If you wanted a bookshelf composed of midcentury Californian interior design, or deep cuts of the Harlem Renaissance, or just a couple of novels that match your mood, there’s no algorithm that can really help.
ED: What’s the S.O.S. process like? I call you and ask for a library. Then what are the next steps?
SS: First, I ask what you have in mind. Are you starting a library from the ground up in a new house or in the guest rooms of a boutique hotel? Or perhaps you want to put together a collection for someone—all books about Key West, Florida, say, or a complete set of James Baldwin...or James Bond. Maybe you have an anniversary coming up or want to get someone a special birthday gift, but aren’t sure just what. This is my favorite kind of challenge.
ED: And then?
SS: We’ll decide on your budget and the scale of the project. I’ll present you with a few options. After that, we’ll have a consultation in which I’ll ask about your interests, your tastes, the books you—or the giftee—really love. I think it’s important to be honest about that. Just because a book doesn’t seem “impressive” to you doesn’t mean it’s without value. You should be surrounded by things that comfort and delight you as well as inspire you.
ED: Do you subscribe to the idea that books are decoration?
SS: Of course! That’s not all they are, but the spaces I’m drawn to always contain books—even if I don’t notice that at first glance. They add so much color and texture as well as personality. I’m a book-in-every-room type, although I find those books made explicitly to read in the bathroom kind of gross and silly. But I don’t subscribe to this idea that a “serious” interest in books precludes wanting to display them beautifully. Why should it? Can you think of a more elegant space than the main reading room of the New York Public Library? Those are spaces constructed for readers by readers.
ED: What do you think of the interior design trend of arranging books by color? Aren’t books meant not to be judged by their covers?
SS: Book arrangement is so personal, I think it’s hard to judge other peoples’ methods. For me, that wouldn’t work. I simply wouldn’t be able to find the book I wanted quickly enough. But the first two people I knew who arranged their books by color—long before Instagram—were two of the most serious intellectuals I know. If the rainbow approach brings someone pleasure, why not? Is there anything more beautiful than the clothbound classics Coralie Bickford-Smith has designed for Penguin? Or that cool midcentury palette on classic New Directions covers? And I love the signature gray-blue Persephone uses on all of its jackets.
ED: Are there any ways of displaying books that don’t sit right with you?
SS: The one thing that does confuse me is displaying books with the spine in. But then, I live in a Manhattan apartment where shelf space is at a premium. I think those shelves are more like art installations.
ED: Do you expect your clients to actually read the books?
SS: That’s up to them—reading is, essentially, a private practice. But I do hope we’re able to entice our clients. And if there’s a book someone especially loves, it’s fun having an affordable, knock-around copy as well as a special edition.
ED: What if a billionaire came to you with a Beauty and the Beast–size library to fill? Do think you’d be overwhelmed?
SS: The dream! No, that would be easy—it’s limiting yourself to a small number on a budget that requires hard decisions and real judgment. As the legendary decorator Dorothy Draper put it, “That kind of shopping takes wit instead of money, and wit is a far less common commodity.”
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