>>George Saunders, in his introduction to Grace Paley’s, Collected Stories, Virago Press (2018), asks the question, “what does a writer leave behind?” to which he suggests the answer, “scale models of a way of seeing and thinking.” We might expand this philosophy to all other types of artists: painters, sculptors, photographers, to name a few. That through their art, they say, “Hey, so this is how I think.” But in doing so, they are not just telling us to think about how they experience life, they are also asking us to think about how we experience it too. In this way, they engage us in conversation; a doctrine Sulfur Books from the small village of Clifton Springs, NY specializes in.
“We’re not an ordinary bookstore,” says Rachel Crawford, literary arts coordinator at Sulfur Books.
“A huge part of what drives us is just the conversation. Everything we do here is, read a book and talk about it.”
Sulfur Books was conceived in April of 2019 when the vice president of Main Street Arts, Anne Mancilla, gifted her bookstore, Explore!, to the organization in the hopes of preserving it as a resource for the community. Main Street Arts was founded in 2013 by Marjorie Morris and was intended to be an art gallery. But by 2018 it had transformed into a full-blown nonprofit arts organization dedicated to highlighting and promoting regional, national, and international artists.
“We do this through gallery exhibitions, workshops, and three or seven-week arts residency programs where artists come here and make work in our studios,” says Bradley Butler, artist, executive director, and gallery curator at MSA.
Since its conception in 2016, MSA’s artists' residency program has brought in over 70 artists from 19 different states as well as Canada, varying from painters, to printmakers, sculptors, and photographers. “While we’ve got a regional focus—Rochester, Finger Lakes, Buffalo, Ithaca, Syracuse—the artist residency program allows us more of a broad world view,” explains Butler.
Through Sulfur Books, MSA has included literary arts programming in how they engage with communities to develop awareness regarding the arts. Their programs regularly include readings given by local and international authors from countries such as Chile, Korea, and Iceland, literary workshops (including workshops that bridge the literary and visual arts like calligraphy and art criticism), book clubs, film screenings, and after school reading for children.
In addition to community engagement, and support of local and international small presses, such as BOA Editions LTD and Open Letter Press, what makes Sulfur Books so fresh, or one might say, so absolutely essential is how they breathe life into the conversation surrounding world literature and literary translation.
“The book covers are all faced out as if they are artwork you look at,” Crawford explains, describing what she refers to as, “The Wall,” a curated collection of literary works on display at Sulfur Books. “Everything on this wall is translated from another language, every single thing is from another country.” Crawford stresses the importance of literary translation in today’s social and political climate, where xenophobia is still a prevalent issue. “Read other voices, listen to other voices. In translation, there is a skill set in place to make someone’s experience accessible to everyone.”
Butler echoes her sentiments, “The only way to learn more about people is to talk to them and experience their art. When you’re making art, you’re communicating with yourself, finding things about yourself, and when other people engage in that, it is letting them know about somebody else.”
Inclusion and explorative discussion is the pulse that beats through everything that is Sulfur Books.
“People will look at the wall and they’ll say, ‘Well I’m interested but I have no idea, where do I start?’ That’s where I come in and I say, ‘what kind of art do you like?” Says Crawford.
Sulfur Books’ mission is to bring together independent publishers and growing literary communities by offering accessible high-quality literature. With an emphasis on diversity, their collection has something for everyone. You can find a voice that represents you, and, perhaps more striking, you can learn about a voice different from your own.
You can read more about Main Street Arts and their blog and events at, https://mainstreetartscs.org/index.html, as well as check with Sulfur Books at https://sulfurbooks.com/. Due to COVID-19, Sulfur Books is in the process of moving its workshops online. If you would like to support them, have a look at their online shop where you can purchase a book of your liking, via recommendation, or Rachel will personally send you a surprise in the mail.
“Literature is as important as it always has been.” -Rachel Crawford