John Brancati has been a fixture in illustrated books since he first began working at Rizzoli in 1970. At the time he was a sophomore at Columbia University. His father had gone to Rizzoli Bookstore to purchase an Italian/English dictionary. At the time, Mr. Monacelli (Monacelli Press) was the manager of the store, and the husband of Brancati’s piano teacher. Monacelli asked after his son. His father mentioned Brancati needed a job. Monacelli told him, “Tell John to get a haircut and come see me.” Brancati went for the interview. Monacelli told him to get another haircut and come back on Monday.
Brancati worked at the 712 Fifth Avenue store from 6:00pm to midnight six days a week; the take home pay was $56.47 a week. Brancati was also a rehearsal pianist for the Martha Graham Dance Company, as well as a member of a band, The Sting Rays, that played CBGB’s. He had saved up enough money to quit Rizzoli and tour for a while. But when Graham hit financial straight, Brancati was out of a job. He remembers, “The day I picked up my last check from unemployment, I went home and sat down and wondered, ‘What am I going to do now?’ Then the phone rang. It was Mr. Monacelli asking if I wanted to come back. That was 1973. I stayed at Rizzoli for 33 years.”
Brancati worked on the retail side, and began opening stores. The first opened on 18th and Broadway, on the ground floor of the building that was home to Andy Warhol’s Factory. Brancati recalls, “Back then Union Square was no man’s land.”
At the same time, Brancati continued to work at the Fifth Avenue location, which also had a gallery. He recalls, “Roberto Polo ran the gallery. After he left Rizzoli he had been in jail for shady dealing. But at the time he produced the ‘Fashion as Fantasy’ exhibition. It was the first fashion exhibit, done before the Costume Institute even existed. He included pieces from Madame Gres, and Charles James came to see the show. That made the gallery a destination.
“Elton John came in a pink jumpsuit, platforms, and sunglasses. Mr. Novelli, the General Manager, wanted to throw him out. He didn’t know who he was. I told him, ‘Don’t do that. He played Carnegie Hall last night.’ Mr. Novelli let him stay. Elton John bought two hand-embroidered Raoul Dufy chairs and a sofa for $35K from the gallery. The next day, a man came with a suitcase full of cash. The Italian lady at the register rang it up and put the money in the drawer. I went to the boss and said, ‘That’s not a good idea. Send it right to the bank.’ It was definitely a different time.
“We were in an ideal location on Fifth Avenue. Doubleday, Scribner’s, Brentano’s, they were all on Fifth. Rizzoli was the specialty Italian store where people would come in after dinner, after the theater, which added to the cache and mystique of the place. The staff spoke 17 languages, from Ethiopian to Russian. We sold foreign papers. The daily papers were flown over that day and came out between six and eight in the evening. The foreigners lined up for the news from home. It was their daily fix. There was no email, no Internet then. It was a unique meeting place, and an elegant atmosphere. Rizzoli was the first place to present books in an up-market atmosphere and to merchandise the books face out . And it was a really interesting collection of unique people.
“I met a lot of people there. Pablo Neruda. Salvador Dali. Mick Jagger. We had this little room where employees had to punch their time cards. It could only hold two people at the most, and it had a table in it. I went in one time and I saw Mick Jagger hiding under the table. He was running from fans and escaped by hiding under the counter. I remember Jackie O came in once, put her purchase on a house charge, and spelled out her name: O-N-A-S-S-I-S.
“One year, THE gift book of the year was a monograph on Georgia O’Keeffe that Viking published. It sold for $75 forty years ago. Seventy-five dollars is still the price for an art book today, while a slice of pizza has come from 25 cents to $2.00. The price of illustrated books has remained relatively constant. I think that is remarkable, that in this country where most people would rather do something other than read, we go on making great books and keeping the prices stable.
“People collect books because they are attracted to the object. There is nothing like the feel of a good book. It’s as simple as that. People are realizing the future of the book is as an object. And as long as I’ve been in retail, my first rule is that the customer knows more than I do. They’ve just come off a plane with that black Amex, asking for something they’ve seen. I listen to customers to pick up on trends. The successful part is being able to anticipate trends and follow it up.”
Brancati left Rizzoli to create East End Books, East Hampton, from 2001-2009. He observes, “I don’t miss worrying about being able to pay the rent, but I do miss my customers. The best part of the job was the people. The thing that made it worthwhile was to talk to the famous and everyday people. Building a personal connection is the kind of experience you can’t get everywhere. It comes from hand-selling books. It’s very important. It leads to success. People trust your opinion.”
Brancati is now Vice President of ACC Distribution North America which has grown immensely from its origins as the Antique Collectors’ Club. Home to three illustrated book imprints plus handling domestic and foreign distribution for over sixty art book publishers, the ACC Publishing Group has established itself as home to a wide array of beautifully crafted tomes. As a distributor, ACC handles an international list that represents every continent except Antarctica. With a wealth of content as diverse as humanity itself, ACC brings it all together under one roof. From jewelry and textiles to food and wine, from gardening and landscapes to interior design, from hotels and cars to masterpieces of indigenous art, for over 45 years, ACC has delivered high quality subjects in beautiful tomes. More recently ACC has launched two imprints: ACC Editions, which is home to more modern titles that focus on fashion and photography; and Garden Art Press, which was created to house the ever-growing wealth of garden and plant focused books.
Brancati notes, “Sales have increased every year since the recession began in 2009. We are continuing to grow and find new customers but getting to them is different. There aren’t bookstores any longer. We have to find them in different ways, through special markets such as garden centers in Westchester and the Hamptons. They take books not just on gardening, but on things like Tibetan art and interior design. Price is no object for these customers. What has changed is that merchants have realized they need to keep shoppers in the store. The books appeal to husbands as they wives shop the store, and they get to peruse books on subjects like Aston Martin and polo horses. They are very selective. The books must reflect their style and presentation of the shop’s merchandise.”
It is the meditative quality of the visual image that marks the photography book that takes it from the gallery to the bookstore to the boutique and back again as an objet d’art, whose value is only further enhanced by the digital divide. As people acclimate to the disposability of digital culture, the photography book stands taller and prouder as a lasting piece of the larger culture. As Brancati observes, “Digital capability is not there in an economic way for publishers or consumers. Apps works for things like cookbooks and kids books, but not for art and photography books. There are no double page spreads in a Nook. The people who want information may be happy with a reader, but art books are for people looking for inspiration or to convey the status of the object. There are people who buy books to decorate according to size and color, while there are others who collect simply for the pleasure of it. The book is an object that says something about the people who live in the house.”