A very special addition to the cultural fabric of New York's historic Lower East Side opened in late summer 2018 and from the moment it welcomed customers (I do mean welcomed) it immediately belonged and felt like a beloved shop that had been there for decades. Josiah Wolfson will tell you he's a musician first and foremost, and then a visual artist second, and that those two things are most important to him. Then what's to explain why his bookstore, Aeon, has such an appealing and discerning selection of titles across these categories: Spiritual, Occult, Fiction, Philosophy, Art, Design, Poetry, Film, Nature, Politics, Avant & Esoteric? I'm not doubting him, I just won't allow him to minimize bookselling to number three.
Josiah picked up the love of books and reading from his father, Elliott, a published and renowned scholar on Mysticism, particularly Kabbalah, and also a painter and poet. Due to Elliott's research Josiah grew up around mountains and mountains of books and he told me his father is likely a part of the reason he opened Aeon and is also an obvious starting place towards his interests in both the spiritual and the avant-garde. I just find a father-son bond like that very touching.
There was definitely a deeper sense of alignment and connection happening around this week's interview, for right when I was in the middle of interviewing Josiah I saw James Hoff's answer of "Josiah Wolfson at Aeon" to my question of who at which bookstores is most consistently trustworthy for him. And then I read all of Josiah's thoughtful responses to my questions and it was immediately apparent that they were written by a progressive, mindful, gentle soul. And then he told me about his important deep filial relationship while also sending me the portrait below, telling me he isn't oft-photographed, to which I replied that I thought a real sensitivity came through. And then it was all crystal clear to me why there is such a distinct spirit of gladness that emanates from Aeon. Please do visit, you'll feel it (and probably need it), too. -Wes Del Val
WDV: If you were to start an Aeon reprint program, which books would be at the top of your list to re-issue?
JW: It's something I have thought of doing, although I think more about publishing original material. In some ways it’s easier to target a few periodicals or journals which are extinct that I'd love to reprint in complete volumes or in part. There was a publication called Experimental Musical Instruments published by Bart Hopkin that I'm fascinated by, which is available online, but when you flip through the old issues there's a special energy that comes through. I love the Heresies periodical and I always wish it was widely available, since some issues are quite rare. Radical Software is something that’s elusive and expensive to track down but should be known and would be loved.
As for individual books, there's a lot... Dick Higgins’ great double-book Jefferson's Birthday / Postface is something I wish were more readily available, as well as a couple of other titles that he published through Something Else press, which itself would be an inspiration for me in how I would want to approach publishing. Leonora Carrington has a short novel that is still out of print despite the resurgent interest, as does Anna Kavan. The list could go on and on... There are some really great children's books that I've handled which go for hundreds that I think should be in the hands of every artistic family instead of the more obvious and available things…
Since you brought it up, whose “resurgent interest” the past few years has most satisfied you? It’s been lovely to see it for Carrington by the way.
Oh yeah, it’s great to see it. Alongside Carrington I think the last few years have been particularly decent for a whole host of female outsiders. Anna Kavan, who I also just mentioned, has had a well deserved resurgence, although there is yet to be an aesthetically pleasing newer edition of her works out. In the visual world, obviously Hilma af Klint had a huge and well deserved moment which is right now being punctuated with a beautiful seven volume catalogue raisonné. Emma Kunz's works are starting to become a little more spread about and it’s only a matter of time, I should think, before a monograph with all of her work and explaining her research into healing should become available here. I would say, with those last two in mind, there has generally been a sort of resurgent interest in the spiritual and mystical disciplines, which makes sense given the fissures in our societal norms. Astrology for instance has become quite “mainstream” in the past few years, self-help books that venerate the Taoist approach are #1 bestsellers and it seems people are interested again in holistic and self-reliant attitudes. Aeon opened right around the time of the Hilma show and because of both my background in those disciplines as well as the luck of having bought three enormous occult collections before opening, it all felt very serendipitous. And I appreciate that more people are seeking it out, even if that means that the hermetic arts sometimes feel like Instagram buzzwords.
Regarding your last sentence, before and after the comma: I’m very happy for your timing, and yes, nothing like IG diluting matters of substance and turning them into fodder for lifestyle posts weighted down with hashtags.
When you stop and think about all the new books that come out every week and are added atop all those others already available, how does that make you feel?
That’s a good question—I have a funny relationship with it, and it's taken me some time to warm up to stocking more new material at the store—and even now I generally lean towards stocking reprints or anthologies of old material that I've known and loved and am very grateful to see back in print. For me it's a challenge to navigate lists of new releases, in part because I am a very tactile person and I like handling things, but also because it often involves skipping through hundreds of new monographs by artists who already have a thousand monographs published in order to find something I think is unique and worth giving space to at Aeon. And sifting through new literature is even more difficult—unless I have some context for something it all tends to go over my head when I'm looking at these lists of newly published works. I get hundreds of emails a week from publishers and individuals about their new book that I mostly have no context for and even though it might be that there is something special there, the more that is pitched to me the less inclined I feel to open any of these emails in the first place. So it’s a bit unnerving, the endless production, and most of it looks fairly dull to me, to be honest. At the same time I remain aware that Aeon is only a tiny fragment of the world at large and so I try to treat my approach to new stuff like my approach to used material, and just keep my eyes trained to see things that are unique and obviously done with love and integrity and try not to let the excess enter into my mind too much.
That seems to be a sane approach. Each bookstore should of course try and run their own race to the extent possible to keep the doors open—the visions and tastes of their buyers is what makes a bookstore one of the few remaining exciting, unexpected physical retail experiences.
I’d like to ask you a bit more about “context” since you mentioned it twice. Tell me about some particularly enlightening occurrences where you didn’t initially have a satisfactory amount of context upon seeing something new to you (whether an old book or indeed a new one) but developed it to a degree which still pleases you.
Ah well, it happens all the time in varying degrees, really. In regards to the way I meant it just now, referring to something newly published which I have no awareness of but perhaps should... I don’t really know that I can draw up a specific example. That's something that happens by the nature of my approach at large and by the fact that I’m not actually as plugged in to the literary “community” as one might expect, and frankly it happens a lot. Otherwise there are a lot of books that fall into my hands that sit for weeks in a pile and I don’t think much of them and then one day I happen to get it into my hands at just the right time and I either “get it” or get the right lead on what it actually is that somehow evaded me before. It's a constant learning experience and there's so much out there and one day something might just blend in to all of the background noise and the next day it’s shouting directly at you. I did my first catalogue recently and some of the best stuff made it in there at the last second, even though I worked on it for months. For example a journal called Criss Cross that I thought was nice enough but not necessarily a strong candidate for the catalog, until I read up on it and realized it came out of the ashes of Drop City, and that Bruce Conner contributed to it (one of my favorite artists) and so I really took notice only after that. There’s also a funny thing that can happen when someone else spotlights something you’ve been sitting with for ages and causes you to realize how significant it could be to you—an example of that is this catalogue called The Spiritual in Abstract Art, a copy of which had been sitting around at my first ever bookstore gig and one day my partner at the time pulled it off the shelf and took it home and to this day it’s one of my favorite things, yet I had been sitting there staring at it every day for weeks without giving it much thought at all. Then there are cases where you know someone’s name and legacy and almost take it for granted that the work itself would be so special. One fairly recent example that comes to mind is Maria Sabina, who I always basically knew as “the very important psychedelic mushroom woman” but when I came across a copy of the book of her writing (although she herself dictated it but did not write it) I was completely blown away at the depth of her words and work. There are a lot more examples like that, the list could go on and I could really reveal just how caught up I am in my own ways.
Each a little pathway of discovery which I think many great readers will find familiar.
What have you read about bookstores over the years that was so impactful it made you want to open your own?
I'm not sure that anything I've read about bookstores led to me opening one, per se. My feelings and motivations are more based on experience, growing up in NYC when there were more weird little bookstores and record stores, and hearing about an even more thriving time for these stores from my father who grew up here in the 60's, and so on. Truth be told, my path to this seemed to unfold so organically that even more than "wanting" to do it there seemed to be a sense of direction compelling me that I had to do it, some kind of inevitability. I got my first job at a bookstore almost by accident and it grew from there—while working for other people I observed what I thought they were doing well and what I thought they were doing poorly, and also realized I had a knack for storing a lot of information at once and for finding treasure in unlikely ways, and when some surprising circumstances led to this opportunity I basically had my whole approach worked out in my head and the sort of stupid confidence that it takes to go off the deep end. I guess you could also say that I “read” the cityscape and that motivated me, too, which is to say that the Bloomberg era sucked so much life out of this city and it has always motivated me to push some character back into it with a little more gusto.
Real life vs the read life, I love it. Can you indulge me just a bit and mention anything you’ve ever read about bookstores that you still think about?
Ha! I might have to let you down a little and say honestly I don’t read about other stores and I’m not sure I have anything at all specific…but I suppose reading about the Peace Eye bookstore added to the confidence that I could run a store and still be a creative person and a freak if I wanted to be…and piss off the cops, too. Less specifically I’ll say that any time I read about the stereotypes of bookstore owners being either snobby, aloof, or disinterested in customers it sticks with me to consciously counteract that stereotype and to greet everyone who walks in the door and try to make them feel welcome and engaged, especially since Aeon could largely be considered “esoteric” or obscure to the general population and my intention has always been to open things up rather than narrow them.
My wife and I certainly felt genuinely welcomed when we entered. I’ve never understood when a bookstore experience isn’t anything but friendly.
What do you know is out there that you wish a customer would come in and offer to sell to you?
That's tough. I'm always most interested in the things I don't know. I have plenty of favorites, plenty of books I've never handled that are mythical and desired but the way my mind operates and part of how I approach the store is to engender as much surprise and revelation for myself as possible.
How often do you experience true surprise and revelation in the store?
Well, the revelation with material comes more often when I’m out in the world with my sleeves rolled up, which is still my preferred method of gathering material. Either picking around piles or being invited into someone’s home to see their collection, that’s where the most magical discoveries occur. But in the store it’s often enough for sure. There are periods at Aeon where it feels like every day for many days in a row people are coming to me with collections and information and that doors are being opened I never knew existed and which reshape my whole understanding of what’s out there. These are periods where I can’t help but feel like I’m the luckiest person on earth, doing what I do on a daily basis. I try to cultivate it best I can, keeping relationships that I think other booksellers might veer away from, as well as just making sure to treat everyone who walks in the door with equal respect, since you never know which walk-in might come back to you a week later with treasure. I also have a tendency to put stuff to the side to spend more time with and that way the discoveries can trickle in later even when it’s slow, so basically Aeon feels like an endless realm of discovery to me, even though I’m completely at the center of it. I think the most important thing towards revelation in the bookstore or in life is being open-minded and forming the right relationships, both of which are aided by one another. I’ve been really lucky with the people around me who help me find my way to these discoveries and I also have always maintained an attitude in my personal life wherein I try to approach the world as a curious child might.
What are some signed copies you’ve ever held in your hands which have been most meaningful to you?
I generally don't fetishize signatures that much but I do love one with a good context. Some highlights: I found at a thrift store two copies of a book by Albert Hoffman both signed to Ralph Metzner, which I thought was pretty great. I once found, also at a thrift store, a signed first edition of William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, which is a really important book to me, and especially because he was not really interested in signing his books it has a lot of meaning to me that I was the one who happened to be in the right place at the right time to find it (of course also the fact that I paid $2 for it helps). I have a great signed Terence McKenna book which I love because it’s one of his less digestible books but the inscription implies that he considered it his most important work, and I appreciate that kind of inside scoop straight from the author's hand. I bought off the street in NYC a Max Frisch book, Montauk, which is about an extramarital affair he had and it was inscribed by him to the very lover about whom the book is written, pretty special association.
Those are each wonderful. Your heart must have been racing with the Gaddis in your hands!
Funny enough I was actually on the phone while I found it, finalizing a totally absurd but fairly lucrative opportunity involving someone filming something at Aeon, so I went from meaningless jackpot to meaningful jackpot really quickly. I was definitely in another world as I continued looking around, holding it tightly in my hand, almost afraid to let the checkout person handle it any further. I basically skipped and smiled all the way home. Very rarely does the world seem to speak so directly to you to say that you were in the right place at the right time.
You’re surrounded by books all day, so how much do you read when the store is closed and from which specific titles or writers are you never too tired to derive pleasure?
That’s funny—people assume I read all day and night, but as most bookstore owners, I don’t read nearly as much as I did before all of this. I used to read constantly but Aeon takes most of my focus in that way and by the end of the day my head is swimming with information, so I need to meditate and detach a bit from the way of the word... I also make music and visual work (and occasionally have a life of sorts) so after the day is through with the store I focus more on that, but I do leave a little time every day to take in something. On a daily basis I read mostly from spiritual disciplines, Sufism and Buddhism, which are both perfect reading in this way, being comprised often of short statements aimed at clearing the mind rather than filling it up, and things that you can weave in and out of at all times without losing the plot, per se. I always have something of Hazrat Inayat Kahn or Ib'n Arabi that I'm in and out of, and I have hundreds of books in the Buddhist tradition which I can read one page of daily and feel as though I've read an entire book. I also appreciate Clarice Lispector in this way, right now particularly her crônicas, as I feel like she embeds each paragraph with an entire universe that makes me want to waltz with her at 1/100th of the speed at which I would with others.
Do you have any regrets from ever getting rid of any books from your own shelves?
I certainly do! However, in trying to recall any certain one right now I'm drawing a blank—which is a good sign, because it can't have been that much of a regret, actually. I am constantly finding new things to the point where it becomes absurd to even fetishize anything, knowing something even more meaningful is just around the corner. In any case I am pretty cognizant of keeping the copies of books that had a personal energy or meaning, whereas anything I've sold which I may have regretted I could replace in due time without feeling the loss.
With which writers would you have most desired to be their drinking buddy while they were working on certain works?
I think I would have liked to smoke a pack of cigarettes deep into the night with Clarice Lispector while she was writing the Passion According to G.H.. I'm not sure if this counts exactly but I wouldn't mind a vodka with Andrei Tarkovsky while he was adapting/conceiving of Stalker... I would say a whiskey with Wlliam Gaddis during either of his major masterpieces, but I imagine the pendulum could swing either way as to whether that would be a joy or a tragedy. Those are all pretty heavy sounding nights... Perhaps I would have a drink with Daumal during a Night of Serious Drinking to lighten things up.
Whose individual libraries would you do all you could to acquire if you were told they’re available and seeking a buyer?
I’m not sure if it’s always assured that you can surmise an individual's library based on their other achievements or outward facing appearances, so it’s hard to say. I just spent a year dealing with what to me was the ideal collection for myself and Aeon, actually—basically in complete synch with my own interests from top to bottom—but I don’t think I could have guessed based on any available information that their library would have been what it was and in that way it was actually an eye-opening experience. Likewise I once bought part of the collection of a well-known film and TV actor and it was mostly occult and spiritual texts, which was a total joyful shock, considering he was so prominent in pop culture and in no way could I have known going into it that there would be so much odd and meaningful material there.
That being said, and assuming we're talking about living people, I would be curious about the library of Lucy Lippard, whose work and various involvements I’ve long admired. I'd like to handle the library of Jerome Rothenberg, as I imagine it resonates with my interest in the cross-pollination of the avant-garde with international spiritual and ritualistic traditions. I'd certainly like to buy the libraries of some of my most devoted customers! Of those not living I would pay good money to have spent some time with the accumulated library of Harry Smith (including all of the books he must've lost, thrown out, sold, etc), although I don’t know how much of it would actually be resalable so it would mostly just be for my own education and enjoyment.
For sure, I’ve often wondered myself what was seen and found by the first people who entered Harry’s place after he died.
Which three books would you be quickest to recommend to most anyone who comes into the store?
Tough to limit to three! I never push my preferences on people without hearing first what they are after, but if I have them in stock and am given carte blanche: for literature alone I’d say Lispector, Daumal, or Gaddis, who I’ve already mentioned, Otherwise Hazrat Inayat Khan’s Mysticism of Sound and Music and Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, and the Tao Te Ching are three books which have had the greatest impact on me but which are easy enough to engage with no matter what your intellectual background.
Whose last book was over a decade ago and you’re eagerly awaiting anything new they’d release?
I don't really know if I have an answer to that, actually. I think that anyone who I would want more from is gone from this earth and there's so much to read already and that whatever needs to come will come, eventually… I used to be a writer long ago and it’s been over a decade since I even wrote anything properly so I wouldn’t mind seeing something of my own!
Good response and maybe your answering to all these questions will prompt you to continue. Thanks Josiah!
Josiah Wolfson in his shop