Finding Space with Aaron Hicklin

Photo by Jon Buono

In our fourth Finding Space interview HUTS had the honor of talking to Aaron Hicklin, brain child behind One Grand Books. If you don’t know this independent bookstore you should. Located in the historic Catskill town of Narrowsburg, Aaron Hicklin opened a one of a kind bookstore centered on one concept, “What 10 books would you bring with you to a desert island?”. Aaron stocks the shelves with a curated and ever changing selection of 1,000 texts, get it? One Grand! He approaches 100 celebrated thinkers, writers, artists, and other creative minds to share their 10 books they’d bring to a desert island. We got the chance to get some insight from him about his journey to the Catskills.  

Aaron, I know you own and run a unique bookstore that’s been written up by the likes of GQ, and The New York Times, but what inspired this journey and why did you choose the town of Narrowsburg to open up shop? 

“My career has been in journalism, initially working in newspapers in Scotland and then at magazines in New York, and I still love that world, but around ten years ago I started thinking about how I might reinvent the experience of the bookstore by rethinking the central organizational feature – A-Z bookshelves. Drawing on my background interviewing people – musicians, actors, writers – I decided to invite figures I admire to each curate a shelf of ten books that reflect their own life journey. The result is One Grand Books, where we add new curated shelves every few weeks, and have only the smallest A-Z section. I adore bookstores, but as much as I love a classic bookstore, I wasn’t interested in just replicating what already exists, and I wanted something that was more editorial in its point-of-view. As for opening in Narrowsburg, it was pure serendipity. I knew I wanted to open the store in a small upstate town, but I’d never been to Narrowsburg until a friend invited me to a dinner at a house she was staying at one winter evening. It was the proverbial love at first sight, and I had my bookstore open within the year. There are very few towns that curve around such a picturesque bend in the river, as Narrowsburg does. In summer I get to swim in the Delaware on my way to or from work; in winter I have a direct view from my counter of the eagles that nest in a pair of tall pines that overlook the river. No one could ask for more.”

How did you discover the Catskills? Did you make the move to the up here full time right away once you opened One Grand? Or were/are you commuting?

“My in-laws live in the area, about 40 minutes away on the Pennsylvania side of the border, so I was familiar with some of the towns up here, though not Narrowsburg. I grew up in the English countryside, and something about this region just resonated for me. It’s much wilder, and more forested, but the sense of community in Narrowsburg has echoes of my home village. I opened the store in November 2015, and spent the next eight months commuting from Brooklyn, and crashing at my in-laws until I had the opportunity to buy a home in town, a five minute walk from the store.”

Photo by Zach Ellis

What have been some of the unique challenges and highlights that come along with the territory of starting a business in a small Catskills town? What advice would you give to yourself back in 2015 when opening shop? 

“I always knew that opening a bookstore in a city would be a sink or swim challenge since the overheads are so high and you would have to run it as a real business, whereas upstate I could take my time to figure things out. That was a huge advantage. I didn’t relinquish my old job for the first three years, so I didn’t have to rely on my income from selling books. That allowed me the time to establish a reputation and figure out the kinks. Meanwhile, the region has become increasingly popular, which has made my decision to open in Narrowsburg feel like a savvy business move when in fact it was entirely about finding a place that I knew would bring me comfort and pleasure. That said, winters are tough – and spring reaches us so much later than it does in New York. “

How has life changed for you since making the transition from city life to upstate life? What are some of your favorite things about it up here? Is there anything you unexpectedly miss about the city? 

“I have never considered it an either/or proposition. I love the city, I love the country, but for now Narrowsburg is home and likely to stay that way for a while. There are things I certainly miss – obvious things like a favorite bar or restaurants, but also the anonymity of the city, the thrill of discovery that I still find from walking around New York. Whether it’s the pandemic or living upstate, or both, life is a more settled proposition right now – there’s just not a lot of variety from day-to-day.”

I know the pandemic has thrown a wrench into a lot of peoples plans, but do you have any new projects in the works? 

“Perversely the pandemic has given me space to focus on projects that I’ve planned for years and never got around to. In December put together a marathon 24-person, 24-day virtual reading of a new translation of Beowulf by Maria Dhavana Headley featuring lots of great talent, from Alan Cumming and Miz Cracker to Laurie Anderson and Rhinnon Giddens, and I’ve just launched  a new biannual literary journal, Grand, and website, and shortly a podcast series based on conversations with our book curators. I think if you don’t wake up with a new idea every day, something is wrong.”

Photo by Aaron Hicklin 

Lastly, what are your 10 books to get through quarantine?

The Dark is Rising Sequence, Susan Collins – “This is a series of five books for older children and young adults first published in the 1960s and 70s. They are wild and wonderful, and a classic in the canon of good vs. evil sagas, filled with references to Welsh, Cornish, and English mythology. But skip the first in the series, Over Sea, Under Stone, and start with The Dark is Rising.”

The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins  – “One of the earliest mystery novels, published in 1859, and a doorstop of a book that never relinquishes its hold. “

The Long-Winded Lady: Notes from The New Yorker, Maeve Brennan – “If you pine for New York before the pandemic, try New York in the 1950s and 60s. This collection of columns by The New Yorker writer, Maeve Brennan, are wonderfully wry observations of street life and the changing city, in which she plays the ultimate fly-on-the-wall. “

Golden Hill, Francis Spufford – “If 1950s New York is too contemporary for you, try the mid 1700s. This 2016 novel is magical, conjuring New York as a gossipy close-knit parish of 7,000 people. The characters are vivid, the plot deeply satisfying, and the finale terrifically moving. “

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson – “A book with a brilliant premise: one character, many lives. As each of Ursula Todd’s lives is prematurely brought to an end, the narrative starts again, diverging in new and mesmerizing ways each time.” 

Secret History, Donna Tartt – “Because thrillers and mysteries are my weakness, and Tartt nails it with this page-turner set in a Vermont college.”

Ghostwritten, David Mitchell – “Breathtaking in its ingenuity, deeply moving and profound. This was Mitchell’s second novel (all of them are excellent) and his most daring: a transmigrating spirit inhabits different lives, and different stories. It’s almost impossible to distill so you’ll just have to read it and tell me what you think.”

Another Country, James Baldwin – “Baldwin has had a renaissance in the last year – his cri de coeur, The Fire Next Time, is a popular seller in the bookstore – but this 1962 novel beautifully evokes 1950s Manhattan – and captures the dilemma of being black in America. Baldwin once claimed that he tried to write the way jazz sounds, and you hear it in Another Country, but it’s a sad, plaintive, and sometimes angry kind of blues.”

Watership Down, Richard Adams – “Rabbits, lots of them, and birth, and death, and God. There’s a great tradition of anthropomorphized animals in English literature, and this tale of a rabbit warren set in the part of England where I grew up is among the best of them. I cried my eyes out when I first read it, and probably would again.”

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes – “What an extraordinarily compact, deeply profound novel. So much compassion, so much insight into the ways and means by which we create the narrative of our lives in order to survive our mistakes and cruelties. Barnes wastes not a word in this short but elegant inquiry on aging, memory, and guilt.”

Photo by Michael Mundy

Here are some takeaways from our chat with Aaron:

Follow your gut: Sometimes all the pieces fall right into place and it just works, don’t doubt yourself if you think you’re getting caught up in the whimsy of something. That whimsy and feeling can be what sets your journey apart. 

Life is what you make it: Living Upstate full time can feel as though it lacks variety especially in times like these, but branch out, get creative and don’t let the times get ya down! 

Escape into a book: Aaron’s list of books to get through quarantine is the closest we’ll get to invoking that feeling of normalcy and excitement of a pre-covid world till this is over. So sit back and get lost in a good book.