Interview with Mark Johnson
By Manya Scheps
I first encountered Mark Johnson in his shop, Hiding Place , after finding a massive book on Mark Rothko that had been paradoxically printed with black and white plates—one small, amazing find that has been supplemented by many others. Mark is a collector, seller, and savant of rare books and music. His interests lie in vernacular works: the pieces that occupy space between genres, and the artists who carve out these blurred areas. I spoke to him about Hiding Place, taste, and collecting via email.
Manya Scheps: How did Hiding Place come to be? Was the decision to host it inside a building full of art galleries and studios a conscious one?
Mark Johnson: When a space opened up in the 319 [N. 11th Street] building, I jumped on it. I wanted something like a shop. But I didn’t want employees, and I didn’t want to be tied down to regular hours beyond one day per week or so (I’m open on Sunday, noon to six). Appointments and serendipity seemed like a better model for me. Plus the building fills up on First Friday, delivering several hundred customers in just a few hours.
MS: What do you see as the interaction (physical or ethereal) between Hiding Place and these other spaces? Do you think the dynamic of exhibition temporality and changeover affects your space in any way?
MJ: I quickly became friends with David and Yuka from Marginal Utility, the gallery right next to Hiding Place. A few months later we decided to start an irregular film / video series together. We ended up programming a couple things before the space we were using, adjacent to Hiding Place, was rented out. But we’re launching the series again soon.
One odd example of how my space interacts with the others in the building is that I end up getting a lot of customers from New York, who tend to buy a lot because records and books cost so much more there. You’d be surprised how many people ask me if the shop is actually an installation.
I do get more browsers than a normal record / book shop would. This is why I keep a revolving display of 70s porn paperbacks up front. It gives these folks something to look at–and in fact, I’ve heard Hiding Place referred to many times as “that place with all the old porn.” I regret selling One Teacher Plus Two Students = Orgy. Also Trucker’s Chicken.
MS: Do you consider selling work to be an archival practice? Are the two mutually exclusive?
MJ: I can’t see how it’s possible to make much of a claim for selling stuff out of Hiding Place as an archival practice, though I do think it happens, in the weak sense that I put records and books in the hands of people who are assembling collections. However, I also work privately, selling rarer books and records through other channels, and some of that work definitely qualifies as archiving. For example, last year I chanced upon a massive collection of rap demo tapes from the late 80s through the mid 90s. There were demo tapes with unreleased music by Tupac, Jay-Z, Marley Marl, Jungle Brothers, and many dozens of lesser-known or unknown acts. Together these tapes amounted to something like an invaluable secret history of rap. The bulk of this collection ended up archived in the best such collection in the world. I’ve also sold numerous archives to special collections at various institutions. But all that happens behind the scenes, rather than at Hiding Place, though Hiding Place makes it possible.
MS: What are you drawn to in works? Particularly with more outsider / vernacular work, how do you assign value?
MJ: This is a tough question. My personal taste figures into it, but I’m also aware what “the market” is looking for. If I find, say, an unknown country 45 rpm from the late 50s (there are thousands of these) with a peculiar arrangement, a haunting melody and bizarre lyrics, I’m happy. But few customers will care. With a similarly elusive funk or soul 45 rpm, I’d be fending off buyers.
“Discovering” a record—that is, assigning value—is an interesting process. Most records unknown to collectors have remained unknown because they suck. But the definition of “suck” is not only a matter of taste, it changes over time. A rare mid 80s modern soul record that sounded like tepid garbage (to me, too!) five years ago can sound sublime now.
MS: If, as the Latin saying goes, “de gustibus non est disputandum”, that taste is something we cannot dispute and has no grounds in objectivity, how can it be linked to a fluctuating market? Or does the collector’s market exist solely to reflect rarity, supply and demand?
MJ: While taste has no grounds in objectivity, it also is never a function of a single subjectivity. It always operates within a community or cohort (though these can be huge, as with, say, fashion or pop music) of some sort. You’re aware of the taste of other people who like this thing—say, craft beers or 60s soul—that you like; you test your taste against theirs, as they test theirs against yours. You share. A niche market, any collector’s market, is made up of like-minded people. It’s one of the primary crucibles in which taste is formed. So in fact the two are intricately linked. What would taste without markets look like? I don’t know.
MS: How does DJ-ing function alongside your collecting habits?
MJ: I can usually justify keeping a rare record if I’m going to spin it. Otherwise, I have bills to pay.
MS: The split in terms of you as a seller and DJ is interesting: they are both equally concerned with keeping a business sustained by catering to a niche audience, and entertaining a large crowd at a bar. Do you see them as tying into a broader curatorial practice?
MJ: I’m a little wary of the word “curatorial,” which is used so often these days it’s become practically meaningless. In Portland, Oregon I came across a coffee shop claiming to curate beans. A good DJ has a sense of what records the intended audience will like and find danceable and the bringing together of those records to form a set with its own logic could be called “curatorial”. But why bother? I think the word, the metaphor,often forecloses the possibility of thinking about other logics that may be at work. Maybe a DJ set, despite being shaped, is somehow ultimately more akin to an idiolect. As for my shop, or any shop, even a corner bodega, there is again a process of selection at work. But I think I’d be calling that process “curatorial” only because I stock cultural artifacts, which doesn’t seem like a very good reason to go there.
MS: Do you keep any salable works for yourself? If so, what are some of your favorites?
MJ: The saleable records I keep for myself pretty much fall into two categories: 45s I can play out, and rare private press records. Two of my local favorites are very rare Philly funk LPs, the so-called “rock mix” of the Del Jones’ Positive Vibes LP from 1973, and the Rick Mason and Rare Feelings Inner Dimensions LP from 1976. I’m very fond of some of the local discoveries I’ve made in the private press field, like a record out of New Jersey by a guy named Joe Tossini. I found the record sealed at a flea market, gave it a listen and liked some of what I heard, listened again and really liked what I heard, fell in love on the third day, and then tracked down Joe and bought his remaining copies. They’re now in collections around the world. It’s otherworldly immigrant lounge music.
Manya Scheps is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied fine arts. She is the editor of New Asshole and co-founded Talking Pictures, an art theory reading group, in West Philadelphia. Her critical focus is on DIY art, its production, and its social implications.