After nearly a decade without one, does New York City finally have a bookstore dedicated to architecture and design? At a recent book talk held at Head Hi in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, proprietor Alexandra Hodkowski welcomed the crowd and described Head Hi as the only store in NYC specializing in architecture and design books. But with a current selection of roughly a hundred books and journals displayed in a storefront space beyond a central espresso bar, Head Hi is far removed from the thousands of books that lined the small room occupied by the Municipal Art Society’s Urban Center Books from 1980 to 2010, or even the Van Alen Institute’s short-lived Van Alen Books (2011–14), a bold, yellow storefront space stocked with hundreds of books. If not a paper-lined perimeter with enough supply to satisfy the most enthusiastic book nerds among us, what exactly is Head Hi?
Hodkowski and her husband Alvaro Alcocer founded Head Hi toward the end of 2018 as “an organization dedicated to art and design that specializes in publications and cultural programming.” Their backgrounds in art, hospitality, and cultural events, and their experience working with museums and curators, point to curation being a fundamental characteristic of Head Hi. The small, frequently changing stock of printed matter is the most obvious expression of this, but it extends to the sourcing of locally roasted coffee, the choice of books for launches and readings, and events like an annual Lamp Show, a juried exhibition. The couple told me they wanted to fuse these backgrounds with their interests in architecture and design to create a space that highlights new books in those subjects and the people who make them. Still, most patrons—many from the Brooklyn Navy Yard across the street—come for the coffee and to sit in the corner storefront, not to browse the books at the far end of the space. “But once they’re here,” Alcocer told AN, “they realize that there is much more than just a cup of coffee.”
Some of the publications I spotted during my first visit to the new space they moved into last July (in a corner retail space within an 11-story building that is part of the Navy Green development) included two that were subjects of recent talks (Digesting Metabolism by Casey Mack and Eva Hagberg’s When Eero Met His Match), issues of Clog and Log, a Tadao Ando monograph, a zine offering an architectural tour of Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood, a collection of flyers from house parties in Chicago, and the shop’s own book on dancers Wendy Perron and Morgan Griffin. European magazines like apartamento and AMAG are also available. While the diversity of the selections feels considered (one won’t find architecture books outweighing other areas of design), it is nevertheless refreshing compared to other bookstores that seem to stock the same titles, if they carry architecture and design books at all. Though unspoken, the online elephant in the room raises its trunk: Signs ask patrons not to take photos, pointing to a fear shared by many brick-and-mortars that people will buy the books online, not here.
Another fundamental aspect of Hodkowski and Alcocer’s undertaking is interaction, which is clearly demonstrated in the book talks and other programs that coalesce after typical business hours. The newest event series is the quarterly New York Architecture + Design Book Club led by the shop and Tiffany Jow, editor-in-chief of the design journal Untapped, which launched this month. The endeavor’s first installment is scheduled for the evening of Saturday, February 18, and will host a discussion of Stephen Burks: Shelter in Place, a monograph by the Brooklyn-based industrial designer and coordinated with his show of the same name at Atlanta’s High Museum, on view through March 5. At Head Hi, Burks will be joined by Christian Nyampeta to discuss the new release.
Book clubs summon images of wine-fueled discussions of the latest popular novel or memoir, but Head Hi is innovating the formula for a crowd accustomed to reading books filled with images, not words. For these events, presenters will share the story of the book and then the group will join in conversation, Hodkowski explained. It being Head Hi—the couple told me the name refers to everything from a creative state of mind to a caffeine buzz—the conversation will be fueled by coffee, tea, and/or wine.
Spending some time in the hybrid store-cafe-exhibition/event space made me realize that, even though the number of publications for sale is small, Head Hi fits nicely within the lineage of Urban Center Books and Van Alen Books; the first existed in concert with the adjacent rooms used by MAS and other organizations for exhibitions and events, and in the second, suspended steps anchored the institution’s assembly space. Head Hi offers a similar place for architects, designers, and people interested in those fields to meet. It embodies the idea that reading is a social activity, not a solitary pursuit, just as it also recognizes that many architects and designers have decamped from Manhattan and now live and work in Brooklyn. Head Hi is, for them, a neighborhood coffee bar and a community space. As for the wider A&D crowd, it serves as a destination for discovering new books and hearing people talk about them.
John Hill is the author of seven books and blogs at A Weekly Dose of Architecture Books.