Jenny McKibben is a secret New York institution. She works for the legendary Strand Bookstore in downtown Manhattan and spends her days building libraries for real people and fictional characters alike. Celebrities (or time-strapped normals) call upon her to stock their shelves, as do set designers and art directors looking to create a literary scene.
McKibben, who is in charge of the store’s By The Foot program, has furnished everyone from Moby to Scorsese gangsters with vast book collections. Her job is part research librarian, part personal shopper. “Working at the Strand has almost been like going to college,” she says. McKibben moved to New York from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and has been building libraries ever since. (We can thank her for our rainbow shelves at our Greene Street store.) We spoke to McKibben in the Strand’s charmingly musty Rare Book Room about hard-to-source titles, naughty commissions, and her personal book-lending policy.
Your official position title is Account Manager, which doesn’t quite seem to capture the novelty of what you actually do.
We’re a small business, a family business. It’s the kind of company where you wear many hats. I don’t just do By The Foot, I also do personal collections and work with libraries, institutions, and companies. I do so much that there isn’t really a job description that encompasses it all. I basically just handle any large account.
How do you set a budget?
We quote people by the foot and then customize it. “By the foot” is really just a way of estimating the cost of a large collection. You’re not looking at a list of books; you’re looking at a roomful. To get a budget, you have to be able to figure out how many books for the space. We get lot of decorators and set designers from movies and television shoots. Every project is different. There’s not really a cookie cutter order.
What kinds of questions do you pose to a new client?
I start with size. Are you looking to get ten books or a hundred? I ask them about their interests, their favorite authors. Also logistical questions: height and depth restrictions. These shelves right behind us [see below] are short, which is great for these antique leather-bound books. Materials were scare back then; they didn’t make books any bigger than they needed to be. But if you put these on modern shelves, they’d look stupid and rinky-dink.
What do clients tell you they’re looking for?
Sometimes it’s very general: just hardcover books in an area of a certain size and they don’t need it to be too specific. So sometimes it is just by the foot. Our cheapest option is “bargain books”, which are $10 per foot and comes from the carts outside, and I don’t hand-select those. For the more detailed orders, I do photos and title lists and people can tell me their favorite authors or genres. We can get as detailed as they want. The most helpful thing a client can give me is a photograph of their existing collection. I’m really good at identifying books by their spine, even if I can’t see the title. A picture’s worth a thousand words: it allows me to see what they already have and what their taste is.
Can you talk about a recent, particularly fun collection you’ve worked on?
We did the books for the Cosmopolitan Hotel, which is a Las Vegas casino, and their whole tagline is Just the right amount of wrong. Usually when I do collections, everything’s in good taste, but with them it was gambling and mobsters and gangsters. It was not your garden-variety collection. It was salacious and wild. We usually don’t do a lot of nudes, so this was an exciting proposition. The owner was very involved; he reviewed the title list personally.
Period pieces seem as though they’d be particularly difficult, since you can’t have anachronistic titles.
Right. We did TV shows The Carrie Diaries and The Americans, which take place in the 1980s. Everything has to predate, so there’s a lot of opening up books and checking copyright dates. The Americans in particular has a lot of characters that are fun to shop for; they’re trying to be American, in a stereotypical, Coca-Cola kind of way.
So books that Soviet spies pretending to be suburban Americans would read…
I know. The collection was very… wholesome.
Is it more fun to shop for fictional characters than real people?
They tend to be a little wilder. We did all the Law and Order: Criminal Intent, which was fun because every week is a different criminal. We had to create libraries for both the killers and the cops. It’s more of a challenge to do a personal library because people are actually reading the books. We just did a collection where the decorator gave us her client’s color palate, but also a list of books about Sicily and the Ukraine, a bunch of Russian literature. We had to combine the two constraints. In the end it was very pretty, and the books were all ones the client was going to read. I call it intelligent design.
What’s in your library at home?
It’s a lot of things that are my favorites: To Kill a Mockingbird, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Cold Blood. I have a beautiful little Jane Austen set, so adorable. I found a great edition of A Streetcar Named Desire, which I’ve still never gotten around to reading. It’s like most collections: stuff I really like and want a nice copy of, and stuff I really want to read someday when I have the time.
Do you have a book-lending policy?
I don’t really do it anymore. My niece asked if she could borrow The Last Unicorn, which is really hard to find, so I told her she could borrow it, but she’d have to leave the jacket and return it within a week. She didn’t take it.
Do you have one book you’ve always wanted to find a great edition of but haven’t?
I don’t have a good copy of Slaughterhouse Five with a great jacket, but I’d probably be even more excited about God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.
You probably get first dibs around here though, right?
Yes. Every morning I go down into inventory before books hit the shelves and take all “good stuff”—but I only take what I think I’ll need in the immediate future. If you want a collection of classics, I need to be able to provide you with one.
What’s the toughest type of book to source?
White books are most in demand, since they provide such a clean palate. Photo shoots just kill us with the white books. If you’re trying to focus on something in the foreground, you want the background minimally distracting.
Have you ever done a children’s library?
Oh, yeah! I used to get request for classics all the time for people with new babies. People wanted Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz, but now that I have a kid, I’ve come to realize that it’s going to be half-a-decade before they can read it. So now I ask people if they want classics for the future or classics for now.
Photos by Elizabeth Crawford