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Nov 7, 201212:00 PMCulture

Fun and Culture in the Mid-State

Living Library: Robinson’s Rare Books and Fine Art Prints

Nov 7, 2012 - 12:00 PM
Living Library: Robinson’s Rare Books and Fine Art Prints

In an alcove in the basement, accessible through a passageway marked only with an “R,” customers of the Midtown Scholar find themselves among cabinets of luminous, ancient books attended by a large desk. Part of the Scholar, Robinson’s Rare Books and Fine Art Prints is maintained by Stephen and Cherie Fieser, and it is the sort of place that at first inspires nerves. How did I find this hidden room? No one is manning this beautiful wooden desk, so should I be in here? Only a staff as warm and welcoming as the Fiesers could make customers feel they are still in a space full of things to be accessed and maybe taken home and loved forever.

What are your ties to the Midtown Scholar?

Stephen: We’re old friends of Eric [Papenfuse] and Catherine [Lawrence, owners of the Midtown Scholar]. Cherie, Catherine, and I all worked together at Messiah for a time.

Cherie: When we met them, Eric and Catherine were all ready selling books.

S: At every stage of the Scholar’s development, we’ve been fans. Around this time last year, Eric mentioned wanting to break through the wall down here. I had been pestering him to sell prints. I’m an artist, and for most of my career I was a book illustrator and worked in publishing. I also did the mural [on the ground floor of the Scholar]. That was a turning point.

How much artistic freedom did you have with that?

S: I was given no directions—that’s why it was life-changing. Even in book illustration, there was tremendous freedom, but the subject always began with the text, always. I was free in how I could interpret the text, I had good relations with my editors, but this project was without limits. Eric wanted a mural. I had no interest in doing a mural, but I cared that he got something nice. In order to recommend some to him, I researched muralists. Meanwhile, an idea came to me, so I put myself in the running. Knowing Eric and Catherine, it had to be history-related. The riverfront is one of our primary reasons for living here, and I’ve sketched a lot of characters along the river. In a flash I thought of how that could work as a mural, so I wrote a proposal. There was no “can you do this,” “you should do that”—Eric and Catherine let me go for it.

When was that? Two years ago?

C: Three—the Third Annual Harrisburg Book Festival is coming up [November 8th-13th 2012].

When did Robinson’s Rare Books and Fine Art Prints open?

S: On Gallery Walk [September 9, 2012].

What relationship does printmaking have with books?

S: For fifteen years, I illustrated children’s books. There was so much freedom in doing work not tied to the needs of a publisher. Printmaking had that allure, but the process is very tied to my background in publishing and design. One person is the printer and designer and originator. The art isn’t made until the ink is applied to the plate, and the plate applied to the page, impression after impression: that’s where the art occurs. The print is not a reproduction. The artwork exists as a result of the printing. Eric put it forward that the prints should be combined with the rare books, for which he long wanted a special space. So Cherie and I began buying prints at art auctions around the country, seeking out things that were undervalued that we could turn around and offer for a better than market price. We have prints from throughout the past hundred years of the art form as well as very contemporary works. We’re expanding our contacts to include those who we think are the best printmakers in the area and now have a rich collection of contemporary work.

"For fifteen years, I illustrated children’s books. There was so much freedom in doing work not tied to the needs of a publisher." ~ Stephen Fieser

What are some of your favorite things that are in here right now?

C: We have many favorites! Our choices are influenced by things we like. It’s one of the dangers of collecting: even when done with the intent to resell, you like things, so you want to hold onto them. Stephen and I worked in publishing together for many years—we both love books. Our first date was at a book sale. Before we were married, we learned about buying prints.
S: Around 1975.
C: Since then, the process has gained momentum. Stephen was the Art Director at Christian Publications, where I was Director of Advertising and Marketing and then began editing as well. After a dozen or more years at the publishing house, we both began working at Messiah College. Stephen taught drawing and illustration in the art department; I worked in the library while going to grad school. I observed the archiving of photographs and prints while working at the historical society.
In that period I began curating at the Murray Library at Messiah a collection of original art for children’s books. I bought artists books and curated book arts for collections there, in addition to the work of printmakers we knew. I also loved the work of a printmaker who was represented in the Engle Memorial Collection of Children’s Book Illustrations. Her work is also featured here.
S: I love the work of Isabelle Bishop. She’s my favorite artist in history right now. I have a small collection of her etchings at home and we have three of her prints for sale here. To the extent we can find her pieces and show them off, we will.
C: There are many printmakers whose work we hope to add.
S: Who do you like now?
C: Seong Moy, Fritz Eichenberg, Kathe Kollwitz, Lea Grunding—there are so many.
S: Cherie likes the woodcuts. Some of the woodcuts that are in the racks are by people we never knew. She’s enamored with these big bold strong areas of overprinted color.
C: Some are black & white, but the color is very saturated. I’ve become quite fond of etchings, particularly those done with aquatint. Some that we brought in as we were processing the work, we decided to take them home and live with them a while longer before we make them available. There’s a natural symbiotic relationship between the rare books—especially those that are illustrated—and some of the prints and even the early 19th century work.

What are daily operations like at Robinson’s?

S: Right now, we’re frantically getting our prints into archival packaging and documenting everything. Cherie’s a great researcher. She’s tenacious about it.

C: It comes from spending one’s days in the library [as Curator of Books Arts at Messiah College].

S: Cherie’s researching and finding the price structure for them. We’re really competitive—there may be some print that galleries in the country are selling for $900 dollars—we’ll make sure we’ll be the lowest.

C: Some might say that sounds like a poor strategy, but the idea is to make the prints affordable, accessible. By the nature of the printmaking process, each piece is an original work, even if there are many impressions made from a single plate or woodblock. It’s something we felt strongly about how, in the seventies, we were able to buy original work on no budget whatsoever. We want to make real art made affordable to more people. We’re so happy to have the opportunity to do that and to represent the work of contemporary printmakers. We are sympathetic to their mission.

By making art accessible to Harrisburg, Robinson’s is an important part of the city’s cultural evolution. Since you have all ready demonstrated it, this is not a question—please talk more about it.

S: When we were younger, we loved going to cities in order to see art and go to bookstores, ethnic restaurants—and there was absolutely none of that here! There still isn’t a real Chinese restaurant in Harrisburg. For decades, there was no bookstore in Harrisburg. It’s so thrilling to have absolutely one of the best bookstores around right here. Our chief comparison is the Strand in New York: a gigantic store, especially for art books. But it’s not a better store than this.

C: And the mission is not similar either—this is one of the reasons we admire Eric and Catherine so much and are so happy with this opportunity to partner with them. In addition to loving books and wanting to make books available to people, they want to and we want to create a community: a place for public discourse where folks could meet to discuss books and poets can meet to write and share work. Even the Patriot-News has referred to it as a town hall, where you can have candidate’s nights and people can come to talk about the state of the city and crime prevention. There hasn’t been such a place to meet before. They also bring singer-songwriters to the area on a regular basis, even before they moved into this space where they are expanding exponentially, even at their former location they featured singer-songwriters and donate the proceeds to Friends of Midtown because they wanted to see the area grow and see other businesses develop. Now with HACC’s expansion in Midtown and the Susquehanna Art Museum building a few blocks from here, other individuals opening eateries and making gallery space available, Third in the Burg—they’ve given back and made available something that didn’t exist before: possibilities.

The discipline of the archivist is to protect delicate material from people, but as you’ve stated, Robinson’s is dedicated to contributing to the community by making art accessible. I remember speaking to a barista upstairs in the Scholar about how many new customers come in and ask how to check books out, thinking it’s a library.

S: Eric and Catherine are open-handed with their stock: they want it to be browsed and handled. They don’t want to be gatekeepers.

C: The books are available to be browsed, as is the artwork. But the cases do lock!

I have to ask: your name is Fieser. Where did the name Robinson’s come from?

S: It came from above! If you go out on the sidewalk and look up, it’s on the top of the building.

Oh my god.

S: We were talking about how to identify this space, whether or how to use the Midtown Scholar name. But Eric wanted to revive the Robinson’s name.

C: That influenced the logotype that we designed. There’s a lot of exciting research ahead of us on the store name and the Robinson family.

You’re nascent, but do you have any objectives for Robinson’s?

C: We’re going to enjoy it! We’ll continually add new work and feature new shows in the gallery every other month. We want the artwork of each printmaker to be seen by as many as possible before the next show, so an objective of ours is to make people aware of and welcome in the space. The work of the eleven printmakers whose work we represent will be featured in shows here. I’d like to do thematic shows from some of the available prints—on reading, maritime series, things like that.

S: The first solo show, on October 19’s Third in the Burg, is Brenton Good. He teaches art at Messiah and is a really passionate printmaker. In the spring we’ll show John Ritter’s work. For many years he has been an illustrator for the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly. John is also a printmaker, and we have some of work in the bins right now.

C: And if you enter the Scholar from the street, there’s a really large piece of his work there, also.

S: This black and white piece beside us here is by Evan Summer. His prints are also in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery—that’s true of a number of printmakers represented here. And the prices are all over the place in the best way. $600-$1,000 for a print, but that’s where a printmaker is in his career. Others, like Ward Davenny from Dickinson, want their prints to be affordable pieces of art. There’s an enormous range of style, technique, size and price banging together here to create an exciting variety.

C: There’s an incredible amount of talent in this intimate space.

Brenton Good’s show will remain open until December. Although Robinson’s is open to the public throughout the same hours as the Scholar, with a reduced selection of prints on display, Stephen and Cherie are there Tuesday through Thursday from 4 to 6, Friday from 4 to 8, and Saturday from 1 to 5, and that’s when you should be there.

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