Inside D.C. entertainment

D.C.'s best job: Buying books for Smithsonian gift shops

December 14, 2011 - 06:00 AM
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National Air and Space Museum. Photo: Chris Devers/flickr.

Does Joan Mayfield have the best job in D.C.? If you’re a nerd or have never figured out how to make a living with your degree in sculpture, you might think so. We interviewed the Smithsonian Institute's book curator about her too-good-to-be-true job.

Title: Senior book buyer for the Smithsonian Institute.

Duties: Choosing all the books and media for 19 Smithsonian museum gift shops.

Tenure at job: “I’ve been doing some version of this job for some 20 years.”

Colleagues: An assistant and “someone who does the financial end of things.”

How she got the job: “I have the wonderful and somewhat useless master’s degree in sculpture,” explains Mayfield. “As a way of making money after art school, I went to work at a bookstore. After the bookstore I went to work for the Smithsonian. I knew a lot about art and I knew a lot about books and publications. It stands me in good stead here.”

How she picks books: “There’s two things that have to happen. It has to relate to the collection. It can’t just be extraneous,” she says. “Two, we can look at it and go, ok, is it going to sell? Really, at the end of the day what we do is raise money for the institution.”

Other factors include the book’s description, price, number of pages, and author. And of course the cover: “I am making an entire career out of judging a book by its cover.”

Where she finds them: In catalogues during the two book-buying seasons (fall and spring), through university presses, and in other museum shops and bookstores she’s sniffed out. “I’m always on the lookout,” says Mayfield. “I go to a lot of bookstores. I hang out in them, I look at them. I look to see if someone’s got something I’ve never seen. I go to museums a lot.”

How she picks books on topics she hasn’t mastered: “I’m not an expert on every single invertebrate fossil,” acknowledges Mayfield. She consults with museum staff for areas she’s less familiar with.

The worst part of the job: “We have tons of deadlines, and sometimes the deadlines are a little brutal,” she says. “Sometimes we have 20 or 30 events every week. The deadlines after years of doing it—sometimes it’s like, can I just lie down and rest? But mostly it’s just fun.”

Hilariously minute complaint: “I wish I had more time to get out to the museums.”

Colossal successes: The Norman Rockwell catalogue, which sold like gangbusters.

Gigantic failures: “I don’t bat 1000 with every single thing I pick up,” Mayfield says, but “we don’t have a lot of things just lying there.” So none, apparently.

How she deals with that made-in-America mandate: After a Congressional brouhaha over foreign-made objects in Smithsonian gift shops, all the shops are trying to source products domestically. “Almost all the printing of the books without color pictures is done in the United States,” she says. “Where we get into some difficulties is art books and children’s books. Anything with a lot of color printing in it is done primarily overseas.”

Mayfield has to balance the mandate with the reality of publishing. “In order to be a purist about it, we wouldn’t be able to have books with color pictures. We’re doing the best we can to try to shift where we can do 100 percent United States vendors. It’s a worthy endeavor.”

Her favorite Smithsonian museums: The Natural History Museum and the Postal Museum. “The Postal Museum, it’s a gem. Who would know? Stamps are beautiful. When you see what’s behind them…it becomes quite fascinating. It’s a lot more compelling than you might think.”

The best non-Smithsonian gift shops: The National Gallery, Building Museum, and Hillwood Estates. “[Hillwood has] got a lot of Russian stuff. All kinds of Russian bits and pieces. An unexpectedly great store.”

Her assessment of job coolness: “It is actually the coolest job in the world.”


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