Your dream space built by a community of creators in the heart of downtown LA.
By Matthew James-Wilson
Building the Heavy Manners Library
They say it takes a village to raise a child, and the same could be true for starting a community space for creators. The idea to open Heavy Manners Library, an independent library and art space in Los Angeles, first came to me on a quiet beach in San Francisco, where I sometimes go to gather my thoughts and refuel. It was the beginning of 2021, and I’d spent the past several years working for various independent record labels, organizing group shows, and doing freelance writing and photo work. It had also been a year since I put FORGE, the quarterly art magazine I started in 2012, on hiatus.
I felt burnt out and disillusioned, but eager for something new. In a trance from the glow of the sun and crashing waves, the idea for a library, a concept as old as recorded history itself, pioneered by many but still open for interpretation, seemed so simple and obvious.
The seed for Heavy Manners Library began after receiving a grant from Annie Koyama, a patron of the arts and mastermind behind the Canadian publisher Koyama Press. Annie started Koyama Provides, a program that supports artists. She first offered me a grant for a collaborative book project I’d proposed with multimedia artist Molly Soda.
“What if we took all of the books we gathered and made them available to other artists?”
Molly is a brilliant creator and internet theorist whose work I’ve looked up to for a long time. Since meeting at a poetry reading in 2016, we’d talked about writing a book examining the ways DIY culture has been shaped by the internet. Our first step was to pool together our book collections and hunt for new books related to the subject.
After my library epiphany, I asked Molly, “What if we took all of the books we gathered and made them available to other artists?” From there the idea snowballed into a space that would offer rare and unique artist books and zines while also hosting new exhibits, events, and classes by contemporary artists.
“[Heavy Manners] would be art history and art made in real time existing simultaneously.”
By taking the structure of a library and expanding it to meet the needs of a post-internet world, we were able to tailor a project that fulfilled our goals in an ever-changing space. This would be art history and art made in real time existing simultaneously. Curation would not need to depend on an algorithm or mediated through a social media company. Having multiple revenue streams like a library subscription, gallery exhibit space, event programming, and a retail section to sell used books and records, meant there wasn’t pressure to have just one source of income, and each component could actually feed into each other.
The first big step was finding a space to do it. We found a 2000-square foot storefront at 1200 N Alvarado in Echo Park that was once the site of Mark Allen’s legendary gallery space Machine Project. This location meant space for a retail store up front, a library of books in the back, a large wall to exhibit work, and a 50-person capacity basement to do whatever programming and classes we could dream up.
For a short time, our neighbors were the Echo Park Film Center, a community resource that had been sharing film history and culture in the neighborhood for 20 years. Unfortunately the founders, Paolo Davanzo and Lisa Marr, decided to move out and continue their work online, but before they moved, they were encouraging and supportive, and ended up donating books and selling equipment to help us get started. Other historic local art organizations like LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) and Art and Practice also donated books, furniture and displays, while introducing us to more people working in L.A.’s fine art scene.
Molly, who is New York-based, created our cataloging system and website while I worked on the physical space.We hired carpenter Chrissy Rivera to build custom furniture and our friend Emily Yacina volunteered to help paint the walls and floor of the library. Molly reached out to programmer and artist Maya Man to design our website. Maya brought on e-commerce web developer Lucas Vocos to build a site that would host our catalog, offer membership, and a blog for original content.
By the end of summer 2021, the site was underway, we had about 700 books, and started meeting more creators interested in helping out. In October we hosted a soft launch for the physical space with a solo exhibition by L.A. cartoonist Seo Kim, and began allowing people to browse books. Although the project was not yet fully realized, it was an energizing start.
Now, just over a year since I found myself on that beach in San Francisco, Heavy Manners is fully operational, with our full website live, plenty of events and exhibits on the calendar, and a growing collection of books to borrow and buy. We had our grand opening in February with a group show of 19 Los Angeles-based multidisciplinary artists and two new membership options available.
Despite the many contemporary dilemmas that have made community and curation a dread-filled challenge, starting this project reinvigorated my passion to support artists in a tangible and genuine way. None of this would have been possible without the enormous support and positive energy we’ve received from creators around Los Angeles and across the country.
I don’t think this project will ever feel complete or finished. It’s an ever-changing organism that continues to transform. It no longer belongs to me and Molly, but to whoever steps into the space and engages with it. Hopefully that means we can continue to create something greater than the sum of its parts.
Seen and heard: The creator community at the Heavy Manners launch event
Matthew James-Wilson is the founder of Heavy Manners Library, the editor of FORGE.Art Magazine, and a photographer and writer based in Los Angeles.
Images by Kelsey Hart
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