If you love art, chances are that you know Taschen. The German publishers of beautiful and fascinating books on art, architecture, design and photography can be found in libraries, museum shops, and good bookshops the world over. They publish ‘coffee table’ sized books which are not only full of stunning art and masses of information, but are also wonderful, comforting physical objects in their own right, worth treasuring.
The Brussels shop is in the Sablon district, just off a lovely square that it shares with a beautiful old church, a weekly antiques market and about half a dozen chocolate shops. Wandering around the shop I saw everything from clothbound editions of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm to The Complete Paintings of Gustav Klimt to the 36 hours series – colourful and creative travel books detailing how to get the most out of 36 hours in locations around the world. Reflecting the diversity of their subject matter, the books in this shop take many different shapes and sizes. There are massive five volume guides to the architecture of the twentieth century, small notebooks or pocket-sized books of photography and art books which are coffee-table size but are so expertly and lovingly crafted that they demand far more attention than mere background pieces. My personal favourite was the Mid-Century Ads: Ads from the Mad Men Era series, with beautiful full-page, full-colour images of adverts from the 1950s and 60s. Just looking around you can tell that Taschen clearly take great pride in their books and make an effort to produce books that will delight all their readers, whether they’re artists looking for inspiration, academics doing research or know-nothings like myself who just like the feel of the thick , fresh pages between their fingers.
The Brussels shop is modern, minimalist and clean; rows of perfectly arranged books fill up the sleek black shelves. As much as I love disorderly piles and shelves where the alphabet has given up and let anything poke out where it may, there’s something inspiring about a clean wall of uniform books lined up in front of you. It’s a magic, I think, that comes from the knowledge that while they all look so well-behaved, the second you pull one out from the wall it will suck you into an adventure that may well be a lot messier and weirder than the first impression suggested. There’s also the knowledge, which I always sense when looking at a bookshelf, that every book in the orderly line holds some different secret inside of it. There’s nothing more exciting to me than a wall of orderly books just waiting for you to pull one out and let it come to life. Fortunately, at Taschen, you don’t even have to take the book home with you to begin; the vibrant illustrations and stunning photographs on these pages come to life all on their own as soon as they’re opened.
For the books that don’t fit on (or are just too beautiful for) the shelves around the edges, there are big golden blocks dropped all around the middle of the shop. Books are never piled but always artistically displayed on the top. There isn’t much inherent logic in the arrangements; 36 Hours in Latin America and the Carribean may well be sandwiched between The Golden Age of DC Comics and The Big Penis Book. Seriously. It makes for a unique and very enjoyable browsing experience. Even more books peak out from inside the gold blocks; piles of books lined up perfectly wait in these little nooks, not fussed about being away from the limelight. They’re relaxed about it, because people like me will always be quite happy to hang out on the floor for a bit if it means getting the chance to admire each and every one. I did leave with dust covering the back of my coat, but I think it was worth it.
The Taschen shop is a great reminder of why we love and need independent bookshops and independent publishers. Taschen and other publishers like it are the champions not of the faceless masses, but of the passionate weirdos. They are places where the random, the niche and the obscure are celebrated. They form communities of readers for the people who need them most; the scholar of Ancient Assyrian sculpture working in isolation in a tiny studio flat, the nature photographer whose family and friends don’t see why she won’t just get a normal job, the weird arty kid in small-town middle America who just wants to know that someone else in the world loves Modigliani this much! By filling up our museums and galleries and bookshops with their inspiring, life-affirming books, Taschen assures us all that Yes, this is important, and No, you’re not the only one who thinks so. In this beautiful shop in Brussels and in the countless other places around the world where their books are found, Taschen are succeeding in opening our minds and exciting our curiosity. And that, I believe, is how you go about making the world a better place.