Saint-Martin Bookshop: from high fashion to art books

Stéphane Aisinber, the owner of a Brussels record store, has transformed a nearby former clothing boutique into a light-filled bookstore. Here, he explains the challenges (and pleasures) of bookselling.
Saint-Martin Brussels Bookshop 16x9 Hero
The owner

‘I'm from Brussels. I was born here, my family's here. And, for 25 years or so, I was working in e-commerce. In 2012, I quit that world to do the things I loved. I've always collected vinyl records, so I opened a record shop called Seymour Kassel Records. It sells only rare and original vinyl. But I discovered that, over time, I was also collecting books. The record shop was working so well, so I thought: why not open a bookshop? It was natural. But I wanted to find a special place. You can rent a space, put some shelves up and add some books, but it's hard to have a special feeling and atmosphere.’

The idea

‘In the summer of 2019, the famous Maison Martin Margiela shop in Brussels' Downtown Dansaert area closed. It was 50 meters from my record shop. I thought: this could be a fantastic bookshop. So I discussed it with the owner of the house; it took several months. Then came Covid. The owner said, “OK, if you're still interested, go for it, because I don't think I'll find anyone else!” He wasn't very optimistic about my business. I decided to refurbish it myself. And – honestly and humbly – I think it's now even better as a bookshop than a clothing shop. I opened it in October 2020; I sell art books, a mix of new and secondhand. And my idea is to also invite an artist to do something in the bookshop, every three or four months, that's totally free.’

The name

‘Of course, it's related to Martin Margiela. You know how it is when you're looking for a name... For two weeks you're not sleeping and you're brainstorming with your friends, your wife and your kids. I had several ideas, but in the end, I wanted to keep the link with Martin Margiela. I [came up with] “Saint-Martin” – it was funny; it's an homage to the house's previous owner. There are a lot of links with art: there's Saint Martin of Tours, there's the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris, and I discovered that Saint Martin's Day is the same as my birthday.’

The inventory

‘A big part of secondhand and art bookshops is that if you buy well, you'll sell well. The most difficult thing is to get the goods: the nice books, the rare books. That's where my focus is – finding merchandise to put on the shelves. There are two main art book distributors in the world and they have all the power. They say to the bookshop owners: “Take all my books, take everything you want, pay in 60 days and what you don't sell just send back.” So all the bookshops have all the same books at the same time – I spent a lot of time in bookshops when traveling, and it's the same everywhere. The only difference between a bookshop in London, in the US and in Brussels is the tote bag! Bookshops say, “OK, I'll take everything. I won't take any risk.” So everything is going flat and it's not very interesting. I work directly with editors and publishers, not with distributors, and I'll make a selection that's totally subjective. It's a risk because people enter the shop and ask me, “Do you have a book about Picasso?” And, no, I'm not selling books about Picasso. He's a great artist and I love Picasso, but there's no added value for me to sell a book about Picasso. There are millions of books [about him].’

The website

‘Online sales is just part of the business now. If you're not online, you're missing something. Even if people don't buy online, they'll see what you have. The website is like 30% of my turnover today. It's often frustrating because you're selling a nice thing to someone you've never met. But that's just the world now.’

The neighborhood

‘The local area is called Downtown Dansaert. It's near the canal. It's multicultural, with a lot of people coming from abroad. In Brussels we have two languages, French and Flemish, but this is one of the areas where people speak both. It's also really interesting being in this neighborhood, as it's rare in Brussels: here, less wealthy people go to the same coffee shops as rich people – there are few social barriers between people. I think it's because it's a creative area. For years, Downtown Dansaert has been an area for fashion, designers, galleries and creative people. We have a lot of artists; there's a special atmosphere. And of course, for retail, it's cool because we have all the independent creators.’

The support

‘When I opened during Covid, some told me: “You're crazy, it's not the time to do a business now, to start an adventure, to take a risk.” But I did it and I received so much help from people who I couldn't normally reach. I contacted people who normally wouldn't talk to me, as I'm too small and just a beginner in this business. But they were so optimistic, so encouraging, so supportive. Big stars, curators, artists, galleries – they were all super enthusiastic. It's totally incredible. So, it's been a super start. A super launch.’

This article was first published in Courier issue 43, October/November 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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