Dennis Masel was always a reader, but after he sold a staffing agency, he’d co-founded for about $570 million, he decided he wanted a library of his own.
“I used to spend a lot of time in college just going to the library and reading,” says Masel, who is now a movie producer. “And I thought, ‘Wow, I’d like to have something like this in my home.’” And so, he and his wife Jeanne, founder of the platform Art for Change, bought a brownstone in Brooklyn, NY, and began to design a space that would fulfill his literary ambitions.
There was just one problem. “I have a lot of books but they’re a mishmash,” Masel says. “There’s no thought given to it other than they were books that moved me.”
That might work on a living room bookshelf, but not in a dedicated in-house library. So, Masel looked to Harper Levine, a book dealer-turned-art dealer, for guidance. “I said, “Hey, I’d love for you to help me with building the library.”
As it happens, this is one of many services that Levine offers his clients. He will open a rare art bookstore, his second, in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood on Thursday, Oct. 13. The existing location is in East Hampton, N.Y.
“After I’d been working with certain collectors for a long time and selling them a lot of books on whatever subject was meaningful to them, it occurred to me that there was an interesting market developing libraries,” says Levine. “We began to think with more intentionality.”
People have been buying full libraries for centuries, says Natalie Bauman, co-owner of Bauman Rare Books, which has locations in New York, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas. “There were great, great collectors in the 18th century, and you have great collectors now.”
Sometimes those collectors are passionate about reading books, but just as frequently they’re passionate about simply having them. “Very often we work with decorators,” says Judith Lowry, a partner at New York’s storied Argosy Bookstore. “I would say we do about a dozen libraries, counting the smaller ones, every year.”
Two things set Levine’s practice apart. The first is that he specializes in rare art books. The second is his price, which has a reasonable baseline ($50,000) but can inflate quickly. “As our profile has grown,” Levine says, “if you want to participate with this concept in a more serious way, I’ve been telling collectors that several hundred thousand dollars is the minimum that’s going to get my personal attention.”
Building KAWS’s Library
Not every conversation is so straightforward. “I never thought of him building out a library for me,” says Brian Donnelly, aka KAWS, the contemporary artist who bought a $17 million Brooklyn building in 2019. “I’ve just bought a lot of books from him over the years.”
Donnelly’s library is almost exclusively art books and art ephemera. “I collect a lot of work by 1970s, 1980s graffiti artists who lived on the Lower East Side, like Martin Wong, David Wojnarowicz, and Lee Quiñones,” he says. “I like to see the printed matter that was made for their first exhibitions. I just find that stuff fascinating.”
Slowly, Donnelly has built up a large, specialized library that includes this material. “I have tons of bookshelves, and I have tons of boxes,” Donnelly says. “But it’s definitely not a glorious display of things, it’s more for me to look at and look through. I don’t really think anyone comes over and sees my bookshelves and is impressed in any way.”
Donnelly works primarily with Scott Stangenes, Levine’s director of rare books, and will write him about “books I see online, or on Instagram. I send him a picture, and then a month or two later—or sometimes a few minutes later—he writes and says: ‘I got it,’. Normally he gathers books and ephemera for a few months, and then comes and visits me in Brooklyn with a couple of boxes filled with amazing gems.”
“Honestly,” says Donnelly in an aside, “as I’m saying all this to you, I’m really regretting it, because I don’t want other people going to Scott and taking the inventory I’m receiving. I’m doing this [interview] begrudgingly.”
That type of collection, Levine says, is a prime example of what he can do as a bookseller. And of what, in many respects, is missing from the market.
“I’ve always tried to make the case that books are objects unto themselves,” he says, “and certain books should be looked at as unique works of art. The separation between books and art is much less than one might think.”
Levine encourages his clients to think of their libraries not as collections of things to read cover to cover—they can if they wish—but rather as a compilation of beautiful things they can dip into and out of in the same way you might glance at a painting.
“Just having books, you look at can be a conduit for creative discovery,” he says. “I don’t necessarily expect people are going to read everything closely, but I do think there’s a lot of enjoyment to be gained by collectors experiencing their books, even if it’s not every word.”
That also helps explain the price of Levine’s services.
“We hear so much in our world about people who use designers to help them with homes, and how much someone will spend on a sofa or carpet without blinking,” Levine says. “If you have a rare book library, it’s going to be so much more meaningful than a piece of furniture, so several hundred thousand dollars is really where you have to start at, in order for [the library] to look like something of real significance, rather than just nice books on a shelf.”
The majority of the books Levine acquired for Masel, for instance, are dedicated to art and photography. “A lot are not meant to be read cover to cover,” Masel says, “but used as cultural touchstones and reference points.”
He still intends to use the books. “This is meant to be a working library,” he says. “I want the books to be read."—James Tarmy