By Ian Walker
The modest facade and industrial steel doors may not evoke the vibe of a traditional bookstore, and with good reason. Located in Fishtown on the corner of Front Street and Columbia Avenue, Ulises defies tradition as Philadelphia’s first independent bookstore dedicated solely to art publications.
Open since November 2016, Ulises’ unique interior — concrete floors, high ceilings, exposed brick wall — emulates the studio atmosphere of an up-and-coming gallery. Two moveable bookcases and an array of wall shelves display titles with subjects ranging from contemporary art and visual culture to critical studies and design.
“What does it mean to occupy space, to be a space, to provide a space for publications?” asks Gee Wesley, co-founder of the store. “That’s a question for all bookshops in the age of Amazon.”
Wesley is the Spiegel-Wilks Curatorial Fellow at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. For him, Ulises represents an “inquiry” into the purpose of a physical bookstore.
Named for Mexican conceptual artist Ulises Carrión, who founded a similar art bookstore in Amsterdam in 1975, Ulises works with rotating curatorial themes. Each theme will run for three months, much like the style of a quarterly magazine. The shop also hosts a series of lectures, conversations and performances that examine the featured topic.
Wesley views the store as a venue for titles that negate the usual categories of fine arts books or DIY zines. He said he aims to stock books that are not explicitly artistic, yet examine ideas, such as urbanism and neoliberalism, that are “informing artistic practice and visual culture.”
Anthony Elms, a Ulises customer and Wesley’s curatorial colleague at the Institute of Contemporary Art, says he appreciates the store’s focus on books that miss the shelves in the arts section of other bookshops.
Elms says he frequents two other independent Philly bookshops, Joseph Fox and Brickbat Books, for their large sections on photography and artist monographs. But he says Ulises is his go-to place for its selection of smaller art titles, including many books written by artists themselves.
“You really have to try to get a lot of these books, both as a store and as a potential customer,” says Elms. “A more general bookstore where art is just one of their sections isn’t necessarily going to spend the extra hours.”
Patron Anna DeCaria is a fibers artist, who says she recognized that many art books can be purchased online, but still appreciates the unique physical space and experience that Ulises provides.
“It’s a nice alternative to buying something online because you can pick something up and read it before you buy it,” says DeCaria.
Most importantly, Wesley says Ulises provides visibility for artistic ideas that aren’t explored in Philly’s art galleries.
“There are only so many ICAs, there are only so many Temple Contemporaries,” says Wesley. “So even if nobody buys a book, even if [they just] flip through it and it informs them to the smallest extent of a horizon of contemporary art practice that they’re unfamiliar with, I think there’s value in that.”
For more information about Ulises and their exciting upcoming events, please visit their website.