Glass Houses 4: Ministers of Information

Pat Phipps runs the Menil Collection Bookstore like an editor or a DJ. He packs into the shop’s small confines not only a comprehensive catalogue of catalogues…

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Pat Phipps runs the Menil Collection Bookstore like an editor or a DJ. He packs into the shop’s small confines not only a comprehensive catalogue of catalogues, but also monographs, comic books, and magazines from far-flung sources that allow for a too-rare kind of free-associative browsing. He and Claire Chauvin share a virtuosity for seeking out obscure, entertaining, and even sometimes inspiring information and organizing it for consumption by the rest of us. Claire, a former zine writer and former webmaster of the labyrinthine CAM website, is currently the proprietor of Poopscape – a blog that grants equal time to episodes of parenthood, art, crafting, food, and the lunatic fringe of the Internet.

 

With their daughter Eleanor, Pat and Claire live in an apartment that’s the information-sifter’s equivalent of a hunting lodge. One side of their living room is lined by a massive bookshelf that contains every art book you could ever want. There’s digital cable, with four flavors of the BBC to satisfy their anglophilia and broadband on a G3 right next to the bed. Every other corner is filled with trophies: from thrifted kitsch to Barry McGee figurines, to issues of BUTT & KUTT. There are things from Germany, things from Japan. But, despite the years of shopping all these trophies represent, you get the feeling it isn’t the stuff that matters so much as what the stuff represents: treasure hunts fueled by insider knowledge gleaned from the backs of magazines most of us will never read.

There’s a kind of sweetness that accompanies this librarian chic. Although their discoveries tend to come armed with a certain amount of cool, it’s a fragile kind of cool that walks a line between charming obscurity and “a tree falls in the woods” obscurity. As caretakers, Pat and Claire have tailored their lives around the particular requirements of the compendium they’ve amassed, providing reading-room hospitality alongside a sustaining dose of ironic sharp corners. No matter how outré any single component may be, there’s something undeniably welcoming about the whole.

Maybe it’s that Pat and Claire’s archivist tendencies dispel the fear that nags at anyone who’s ever created anything: that past a certain expiration date – the products of our efforts are forgotten. It’s comforting to know that someone, somewhere is collecting our ideas, preserving them, and providing them a home.

 

David Harrison is a writer and photographer living in Houston.

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