The writer and champion of print media makes a compelling case for spending more time on eBay.
Every Tuesday I pry open my mailbox to find The New Yorker waiting, warranting simultaneous pleasure and agony. The abundance of magazines I’ve accumulated has perpetuated a frustrating, neverending hunt for space, though this is nothing compared to the challenge Vince Aletti faces. But as a collector for over 45 years, finding space for magazines is more of a labor of love than chore. Bookcases promptly greet visitors in the entryway of his East Village apartment. Mountains of books frame each end of the couch. Towers of his print magazine collection are methodically stacked to create narrow alleyways of walking space. As a writer, photography critic, and curator, Aletti’s expansive collection has surpassed the test of time. His book Issues is a testament to his knowledge of print work, detailing a history of fashion magazine photography. With a collection started in the 1970s, Aletti has overcome a dilemma most New Yorkers experience—wanting to keep things, but having nowhere to store them.
The proliferation of digital publishing has led to ongoing conversation about the death of print, prompting questions around the efficacy of tangible goods. There’s value in the physical and there’s value in the personal. Document reconvened with the archivist to discuss appreciating print in 2020, offering tips on how to build an incredible collection that represents personal interests and reflects iconic cultural moments.
Rachel Cheung: What inspired all of your collections, whether it was your magazines or books? How old were you when you actively began growing them?
Vince Aletti: I really started collecting as a kid. Like, 10 years old. I remember subscribing to House and Garden when I was like 13.
Vince: I couldn’t start really collecting until I resettled in New York in 1968 after college. I never really had much money while I was in school, so once I came to New York and had my own apartment, I started writing about music and started collecting vinyl, and more casually, magazines and books. That would’ve been when I was in my early 20s.
Rachel: You said in our last conversation that there’s this issue of Harper’s Bazaar that was one of your favorites. It was April…
Rachel: [Laughs] I love that you remember.
Vince: Of course. It’s the touchstone for me; it was a significant magazine and it was an important issue. It was [Richard] Avedon’s 20th anniversary at Harper’s Bazaar, and it was this really pop-art issue with the Beatles, Jasper Johns, Jean Shrimpton—just this really wide-ranging look at pop culture, which I was completely caught up in during that moment. It was something that I kind of latched onto, it was a fetish item.
I ended up tearing it up. Tearing the cover up, tearing out pages I really liked, push-pinning them to the wall. I put it up in almost every apartment I was in, every dorm room. It’s important to me visually. I started looking for this issue, thinking ‘I really need to have the whole thing, why did I not keep the whole thing? How could I have torn it up?’ It proved to be really difficult to find.
In the course of looking for this, I found a lot of other things and realized how significant they were for me. It wasn’t just the great covers that were important, but so much more. I felt that by collecting the issues, I had this great collection of work that I could otherwise never afford. There were tons of pictures in the magazines that I hadn’t seen anywhere else—weren’t in any books, weren’t in any of the anthologies. That’s what really got me; I was finding material I knew didn’t exist anywhere else, and that’s kind of what got me caught up in this whole thing.
Rachel: So would you say this is still one of your favorite issues?
Vince: Totally. Number one.
Rachel: Number one forever?
Vince: [Laughs] Right. I’m always looking for things on that level—things that are consistent and important. There are often cases where photographers take over the whole issue and that’s always exciting to me, to see how they handle that, to see how they think about creating an issue the same way they think about putting a book together.
Rachel: Besides this issue of Bazaar, is there another one that you reach for or go back to for inspiration?
Vince: This is a good one, but there are so many. That’s why I did this book Issues. Not all of them are something that I’m constantly going back to. When I think of Avedon, it’s the Paris Collections issues that he did, including Dovima with Elephants. The other greatest concentration is the Christmas issues that Diana Vreeland did at Vogue in the ’60s, including Irving Penn’s Worlds in a Small Room—that sort of ethnographic series he did in Bali and Cameroon. Those are the things I’m going back to and referring to as great issues. Magazines have that same weight, but offer a variation of how they [photographers] worked.
WHERE TO LOOK (EBAY IS THE MODERN BACKDATE STORE)
Rachel: Where are some of your favorite places you like to purchase or browse for magazines?
Vince: Basically all of them have disappeared. There’s no place but eBay.
Vince: When I first started, there were a number of what were called backdate magazine stores. They were usually in bad neighborhoods, and the last ones I remember were right next to Port Authority on one of the worst blocks in New York. They were extensive, they had piles and piles of old magazines. All of those disappeared probably in the ’80s.
The last real focused place was Gallagher’s Paper Collectibles which was two blocks away from me in a basement. When I first met the guy who ran it, Michael Gallagher, he had tables set up in the Garment District. I used to haunt him every once in a while, take a break from my work and go to find him until he took over the space on 12th Street. He developed a clientele of designers who could come to him and say ‘I need Seventeen from the ’60s,’ and he would gather everything he had. He was a very focused source for fashion and magazines in general, but he went out of business more than 15 years ago now. And that’s it—he was the last.
Rachel: So if you’re looking for something now, you go online and hunt it down?
Vince: I go to eBay.
Rachel: Do you feel like that’s a risk?
Rachel: You trust they’re in good shape?
Vince: Well, there’s occasionally a situation where a magazine will arrive with pages missing. That’s annoying, but it doesn’t happen often. It’s pretty reliable, and it’s astonishing how much is there. When I’m going outside of fashion, when I see an issue of LIFE magazine that I think I should have because it has a great cover, or I know there’s a particular photographer in this issue of Sports Illustrated, I’m amazed at how often I can zero on it. eBay is pretty incredible. But there’s no other, at least I’m sure I would be aware, if there was an existing store in New York. Occasionally I find things at the flea market, but that’s so rare. And the flea market is just not reliable in anyway, but that’s what makes it fun.
HOW TO MAINTAIN CONDITION AND STAY ORGANIZED
Rachel: When you’re looking to buy an issue, what do you look for in terms of the condition, quality, or who it was owned by?
Vince: I have no sense of provenance in this area, although I have an issue of Vogue that has a Richard Avedon address sticker on it which I definitely prize. Condition is, however, very important. I’m very conscious of upgrading if I have an issue that is flawed in some way, especially on the cover. It has to be complete, and it has to look good. I have more and more been lending magazines to exhibitions, often for their covers, sometimes for interior spreads, so I want them to look perfect.
Rachel: Do you have a specific way you maintain your collection? Does everything have a sleeve, are issues organized chronologically?
Vince: I do try to keep everything in plastic sleeves. That doesn’t always happen. There’s a lot of areas where it’s more random. I have Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar by year in various places in the apartment. That pile is all Italian Vogue. To the right of that is mostly British Vogue from all different years. There are lots of areas where I know it’s a group, but it would take a lot of looking through to find a particular issue. This pile next to you is all recent acquisitions.
Vince: Yes. They’ll be there until I can find a way to put them somewhere else. Some of them are duplicates of things I already have. Many of them are things I haven’t had before. There’s no easy, sortable place for much of it. Either I have to get rid of something, or substantial things, or just leave them here for a moment.
The ones stacked around the mirror in my living room, those shelves are alphabetical. It’s all photobooks. They’re organized by the photographers’ name. There are larger shelves with oversized things that are not very organized; there are sections of fashion, others of poetry. Beyond that, it becomes difficult. I’ve spent weeks looking for something that I know I have and I don’t know where it is. The things I feel like are most valuable tend to be in the glass-front bookcases. I have a number of those around the house, but I’ve run out of space in those and it’s not like any of these other things are less valuable to me.
Rachel: Do you have a time in the year or a system for maintaining your collection? Do you dust weekly, take a day to reorganize?
Vince: [Laughs] No. Things get moved around occasionally. But there’s not a lot of maintenance going on—it’s trying to make space as much as possible. It’s out of control at the moment, so I can’t really do much.
Rachel: I love how big these former print issues used to be.
Vince: That’s one of the things that attracted me at the very beginning; the scale of the magazines is so much more elegant. When everything becomes smaller it’s more of a challenge to make it look good, but I think people got used to that. But that’s one thing I love about old magazines and what I love about W magazines today, which are still quite large.
Rachel: You’ve been collecting for a few decades now. Between the ones in the glass cases and other special items—do they hold valuable over time, and is it because of the photographer, the content, or something else?
Vince: The way people usually define value is through rarity. It tends to be material like that—books that there weren’t a lot of, or they’re valuable to me in particular. It’s really a sense that these are items that are important to my way of thinking. I have tons of Warhol material because he was incredibly influential in my way of coming into society. Value for me is more personal than real. There’s a lot of books in the cases that are probably valuable to me and not to any book dealer, and that’s okay.
Rachel: It’s interesting to conceptualize whether people see value in tangible items anymore. I’m wondering how you think digital media affects how people feel about having “things” like physical issues.
Vince: It’s hard for me to answer that because I pay no attention to digital media. I read all magazines physically; I subscribe to a ton of things. It’s important for me to have them in my hand. I don’t want to sit before the computer, I don’t have a cell phone, I don’t have a tablet. I’m not going to sit at my computer and read. I’m encouraged to go to newsstands and see new magazines.
I feel like we’ve been talking about the death of print for 20 years already, and I’m happy it keeps being put off because I think it’s important to have something physical. The physicality of a magazine gives it a whole other effect. I certainly read things differently in a magazine than I do when I’m online. I’m encouraged that there are still a lot of magazines, and it doesn’t seem to have had the same impact on the difficulty of print publishing.
On one hand I’m happy for any kind of literacy to get out there, no matter where people read as long as they’re still reading. For me, the way you page through a magazine is very important. Design, typography, the sequencing of an issue—I think all that is very important in print. That’s the quality and culture of the work, being able to directly see and feel it.
Rachel: Right, the flow of content is important in how it’s digested. I was wondering if there’s a former print publication that you really miss?
Vince: The first magazine that comes to mind when you say that is The Face, which I know has come back, but I don’t think it has come back the same way it was. The Face and i-D had a way of covering the moment so particularly. They had a great visual sense—they used great photographers, they had great design. Unfortunately, there are so many great magazines that have gone by the wayside.
VINCE’S TIPS FOR THE ASPIRING COLLECTOR
Rachel: I was wondering if you have three to five tips for anybody looking to start an epic magazine or book collection.
Vince: Have a sense of what interests you. My collection is almost completely driven by photography and graphic design. Identify your focus. Is it fashion, is it contemporary, is it historic? Do you want to delve into a particular moment?
When I started collecting fashion, I started thinking about the ’50s and ’60s, but I grew up in the ’40s. I became more and more interested in magazines that came out the year I was born. I bought a lot of magazines from that year just to have this larger sense of the world I came into.
It’s important to figure out why you’d be doing this, why you’d be collecting at all. For me, it’s also feeling like I have a great collection of Richard Avedon without having to spend thousands of dollars. Are you interested in the great Art Directors, Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar? There’s this great history of Art Directors over the years, that’s another way to look at magazines. I’m fascinated by Warhol’s history in print. Before he did Interview, he’d been doing years and years of drawings in Harper’s Bazaar and covers for all kinds of magazines. That’s another way to focus—think about a particular artist, a designer you’re interested in and follow their history. That’s often quite extensive and maybe more difficult to locate at times, but I think that becomes the pleasure of the search.
It’s a matter of deciding what interests you and narrowing it down. You’ll see things around that little area that you’re interested in that feed into that, or make tangents from that which you’ll become interested in. That’s why this collection is kind of out of control, because I’m always finding a tangent that interests me. Inevitably, no matter how narrow you make it, it will grow and it will expand.