The Karma bookstore sits in a white storefront on a quiet stretch of Downing Street in the West Village lined with trees and curiosity boutiques. Given its name, it could easily be mistaken for a purveyor of Eastern philosophy; in fact, that’s just about the only thing it’s not. It’s an art bookstore, graphic design company, publisher, exhibition space, take your pick—and, since opening a year ago, it has become an unlikely stop on the art-world circuit.
“I guess I just can’t avoid thinking of new projects and new ideas, new things,” said Karma’s owner, Brendan Dugan, 32, at the Blue Ribbon wine bar across the street. “When you’re working with artists, they have so many great ideas and so much great content, and sometimes all they need is someone to say, ‘Oh this is a great thing to highlight or make into a book,’ because they’re so focused on other things.”
Since Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations, or perhaps William Blake, artist’s books have differentiated themselves from other books by being art objects in and of themselves. Nobody’s going to be reading one on a Kindle anytime soon. “I think that’s also part of why I do it,” he said. “Because these projects we’re doing, they don’t really fit into the model of traditional museum catalogs, or even artist monographs. They’re weirder. There are a lot of singular ideas.” Singular’s one way of putting it. In March, the artist Rob Pruitt did a book signing at Karma where the books where shrink-wrapped with seemingly random objects like a phone book and handcuffs. Oh, and, aside from a stuffed panda that served as his fig leaf, Mr. Pruitt was nude.
“Karma’s sort of a mash up between City Lights and Benedict Taschen,” wrote the dealer Bill Powers in an email. Mr. Powers’ novella, What We Lose In Flowers, was published by Karma earlier this year. “Brendan is the type of guy who would have published Robert Frank’s The Americans when no one else in the U.S. would. You walk into his shop and you’re just as likely to find Adam McEwen or Elizabeth Peyton as you are Peter Brant. How many book shops can say that about?”
Though, to be fair, not every bookstore hosts exhibitions by the current crop of in-demand artists. At Karma, Mr. Dugan has shown trash from Dan Colen’s studio. He’s allowed Bjarne Melgaard to paint over posters they’d created together and install vacuum cleaners on top of books. Recently he turned the store over to the artists Dylan Bailey and Aaron Aujla, who decorated it as a tongue-in-cheek Crate & Barrel-style lifestyle store featuring hand-dyed beach towels for $85.
Last week Mr. Dugan opened a new Karma branch in Amagansett, following in the footsteps of the late Upper East Side rare books dealer and gallerist John McWhinnie, who also had a store in the Hamptons. A Hamptons branch seemed a logical next step for Karma, which has somewhat unexpectedly become popular with the glitzier elements of the art world. Karma currently has a miniature outpost in the form of an artwork in an exhibition at Venus Over Manhattan, the gallery in 980 Madison owned by Observer columnist Adam Lindemann. At one point while we were at Blue Ribbon, the art adviser Mark Fletcher and his partner, Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer, stopped in for a drink and waved to Mr. Dugan. Across the bar, Mr. Fletcher inquired how the Hamptons opening had gone. “Great!” Mr. Dugan said. “I’ll come over and show you guys pictures.”
Much of his day job still involves graphic design. After graduating college in 2001, he worked at a design firm where he made brochures for Sony and helped design the FedEx website. He was introduced to the art world by his girlfriend—now wife—Ellen Langan, a director at Maccarone gallery. Through her he met Nate Lowman and snagged his first art-world commission— a bumper sticker for a show by Mr. Lowman that appropriated a drawing from The New York Times. It read “The End”—Mr. Dugan can’t remember of what. From there he founded his own firm, An Art Service, which designs anything from catalogs to Artforum ads for galleries like Gavin Brown, Gagosian, Greene Naftali and Barbara Gladstone. As the varieties of projects has grown, so have the services he provides.
“If they have a really specific vision in mind I help them get there,” he said of working with artists. “Or if they have this vague idea and I can try and think what they’re looking for and we can do it. In a way I’m a technician. I’m their hands, I’m their person using the computer to show them what it’s going to look like.”
Karma, the store and the imprint, followed, in 2011. Its name and logo came from an archival illustration found by Mr. Lowman. The store really started as a for-sale library; Mr. Dugan wanted to surround himself with sources of inspiration to stay at the cutting edge of the business. Karma has do books with Hanna Liden, Jonathan Horowitz, Laura Owens, Paul Lee and Adam McEwen.
“He’s one of the best that I’ve ever worked with,” Mr. Pruitt said over the phone, of Mr. Dugan’s graphic design sensibilities. They’ve designed a book together, along with a handful of ads and multiple editions. “He has everything you want in a graphic designer. He has his own vision, but then he is culturally attuned so that he’s aware of what else is going on in the world of design,” an increasingly important criterion in a graphic designer, he said, now that everyone is always logged on and in one way or another consuming graphic design all day long. “A book is kind of frozen in time, and it’s nice to be working with a scholar of the medium. It might be the case that you want something that looks dated in five weeks, but you’re one step ahead of the game if you’re working with someone who knows what the current trends are and has one foot in the future.”
It’s very fluid, how these books come about. Mr. Melgaard’s most recent Karma book was conceived when he started sending Mr. Dugan unsolicited PDFs, pages of a novel he was writing from Mexico about a plan to get himself and his boyfriend on the cover of ¡Alarma!, a magazine there that publishes photos from accidents and murders, by hiring drug dealers to kill and dismember them because they wanted to be famous. There were also drawings of the two of them swimming with dolphins.
Mr. Dugan decided it should be two books. “Working with Bjarne on any project can take you to a place you hadn’t expected to go,” he chuckled. His books are usually a limited run, but even a small batch, say 500 or 1,000, costs a bundle. “You may not sell out all the books for a couple years, and even if you sell all the books, you might just break even.”
He doesn’t have investors; the goal, he said, is to make enough to pay his staff of five and print the books. Not that he’s struggling. I asked why he thought the store had become fairly popular with, well, Hamptons types.
“Having the opportunity to think about art during the day is kind of a privilege,” he said, and that’s the type of people who come to the store, be they collectors, artists or students. He’s mostly concerned with reaching as broad an audience as possible.
“It’s what a book does,” he said, “mass distribution of an idea. Because you’re printing 1,000 or 2,000 copies, and even when the shows have ended, it’s a distribution method of ideas, so that’s the goal, to get people interested and excited.”
He actually doesn’t have an extensive art-book collection himself, and thinks of the store’s inventory as his holdings. At the moment he’s planning an exhibition with Sam Falls that will include a 40-foot fabric work wrapped around the shop. After that he’s planning a book with Richard Prince (working under the name Fulton Ryder), and a book by Piotr Uklanski, Pornolikes, featuring images of porn stars who resemble celebrities like Sarah Palin. From there on out, it’s whatever PDF lands in his inbox next.
“That’s the great thing about having your own company,” he said. “You become your own client, and you’re basically producing it for yourself.”
Correction, 10:43 p.m.: An earlier version of this story misstated the origins of the store’s name and the number of books planned with Richard Prince.