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Artist of the Week: Gemma Janes

At the top of what vaguely resembles an English townhouse, located on Rue des Cascades in Paris, lies the flat where Sendb00ks has its roots.

After dropping out of school at 17 to pursue modeling, Gemma Janes began relying on books and the conversations surrounding them to substitute a formal education. Later on, finding herself with the opportunity to attend university back home, she was ironically left with a cramped Parisian flat full of English books to part from. She began offering her secondhand collection via Instagram, and now, with the help of a network of creatives, Janes strives to foster a community in which people can discuss literature, educate themselves, and grow outside of the classroom.

In addition to selling her curated selection of vintage books, Janes chooses a featured novel per month paired with a commissioned art piece, essay, and podcast in which she takes the discussion further.

We stopped by her home and spoke to Janes into the late hours of the night about the trajectory of her project, what she hopes people take away, and the power of a good story.

Gemma Janes! Introduce yourself.

I mainly got into reading when I dropped out of school to start modeling. I was 17, and I think I was super missing that stimulation you got from education. I was hanging out with my friends who were all in university and they’d give me their books that they were studying and I’d take them to my castings. I was living with my best friend Katie who was studying English Literature at a university where she struggled to find like minded people ; , she would come home from school, and I modeling and we would discuss these books together. That sort of became the basis for this podcast that we’re putting out now at the end of the month. It’s her and I; we’re basically discussing books between someone that is fully educated in literature and can talk about the biblical references… and myself. I’ll just talk about how it makes me feel.

I really wanted to create a space where people could go and educate themselves in a comfortable way that didn’t feel intimidating. Because for me, when I was then trying to get back into school after dropping out, it was really difficult.  I was like, “Look, I’ve read all these books, I’m kind of smart, please take me in.” I didn’t get in because I had no qualifications and it was so frustrating. I feel really comfortable talking about books with people because it’s something that feels universal.

Is there a specific first book that you remember really relating to?

Anaïs Nin—I’m probably thinking of this because we featured Little Birds last month on Sendb00ks. She was an erotic writer based in Paris, and she wrote these amazing diaries. When I was younger, Katie and I would read them together; she bought me a diary for my birthday with my initials on it, and she was like, “We’re going to be like Anaïs Nin, and we’re going to write every single day in these diaries; everything that happens to us.” So I think that was one of the first books I read where I really felt like I could really understand myself and my days, just through reading her work, you know.

You’re from England, but how did you end up in Paris—and when did Sendb00ks start?

I really wanted to spend a year on my own, because I’d always been in relationships and things and I was worried that one day I would be 30 and become single and not know how to do it. So I thought, I’ll go now, I’ll live one year in Paris, and it’ll be a good place to go and learn another language. When I first came, I spent a lot of time just reading. Now, I’ve been here for  a year and a half. Sendb00ks started because I finally got a university place and I was supposed to be going to London. It’s expensive to buy English books in Paris, so I’d always go on short trips home and bring the books back to France. I ended up with a mass of cheap English books in my flat, and I was stressing out about having to get them home. One insomniac night, I uploaded all of them on to Instagram with funny captions about the stories, and the next morning I had like 300 DMs. people. People were asking me for recommendations, telling me about their lives, saying they’d just broken up with their boyfriend, and asking which book they should read. I just spent the whole next day loving going back into these books and talking to all these, mainly young girls in America, about all of them.

So that’s when it all started?

Sort of, yeah. That day I just frantically wrapped them all the books and just sent them. It was weird because I told people that I would send them for free, but they were like, “We want you to go and source more books and keep doing this for more people.”  People were sending me 50 euros on Paypal for one book. The first few days I got quite a lot of money, but it was all in donations. I wanted to get more books because it was such a beautiful idea; I can get books to people that don’t really read, in any corner of the world, you know? I feel like a friend just sending it to them. In April I started speaking to different publishers and Penguin Books seemed like the best option. They offered me a good rate, so now I’m sending over 100 books per month via Penguin.

Apart from the set of books we do with Penguin, I still sell the vintage books I find. I don’t really make any money doing it through the publisher after postage and stuff, and I want to keep the books cheap. If I sell vintage books, we’re able to make money to keep the project going. I find them at little charity shops in England; you can go and find like really old Henry Miller for five euros, really good ones.

How long have you been selling books? Do you want to continue to do monthly books?

It’s been about eight months. I would say in this last month or two, it’s got really busy, before that it was really just me. When I got the first batch of books there were so many people that reached out to me on Instagram that wanted to help. There was this one girl called Marlene, who reached out in Paris and offered to help wrap the books; she came over and we had a coffee and she was just super smart. She was studying medicine in Germany, and we just kept talking. Now she does everything with me.

So who is on your team?

I’d say Marlene and I run the company together. She really organizes everything because I’m not very organized. It’s just been us two, and then these last two months I’ve taken on who we call the librarians, the people who love reading and would like to contribute in some way. So for example, a girl called Mical Valusek is a great photographer. She wanted to make documentaries, and I’d love to make documentaries of our artists every month. We recently did a video on the artist Lou Benesch who we collaborated with. I like the idea that anybody can join the project and do what they love doing, You know? At some point, I’d love to get some funding to be able to pay everybody’ I think it will happen.

What I love about this project is that it’s kind of like a book club, but then everyone’s bringing their own specific talent to it. It’s cool because you keep people involved, make it so intimate, and you’ve ended up creating a platform to talk about the things that interest you.

To clarify, for each monthly book you do—you collaborate with one artist and then feature the artist and the book?

Yeah, exactly. Marlene and I realized that after selling the vintage books, it’s not very personal if people are receiving a book from Penguin; it’s not as fun as receiving a second hand book that someone’s already read. We liked the idea of it being personal so in the beginning, we thought maybe we could make like some sort of weird bookmark or something to go inside. After talking about it, I realized that all my artistic friends would love to make something to put in their favorite books. I was on a shoot with my friend Antoine Henault and that’s when we decided to use one of his photographs as a postcard. We featured it with Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin.

After that, I messaged different artists that I knew and I was so shocked how many loved the project and really wanted to be part of it. People love reading and I think for most people, when you’re talking about books, it makes them feel really open. It’s a lovely way to get people to be open—especially artists who are normally quite secretive about their work sometimes. You can use books as a way of getting to know someone, it’s cool.

You get to learn more about them by each book they take a liking to
of course.

Exactly—without revealing too much with themselves. When we worked with Lou, I went into this bookshop in Paris called Ofr. and I saw these amazing paintings on the wall. I found a book and she had illustrated it; she’s an erotic illustrator and it turned out we had mutual friends. I bumped into her at a wedding and asked if she’d be interested in collaborating on our project; I thought she’d be perfect for the Anaïs Nin book;  she did erotic stories, Lou did erotic drawings, etc. Lou is quite shy, but then we had a coffee and she loves books, so when we talked about them she was so relaxed and open and sweet. She’s the first one we created a documentary about. It’s really beautiful. There’s something super, super sweet about because it is obviously just three girls that want to make each other feel good. There’s no other motive. I think it’s really cute.

And so for this month’s book by Jean Rhys you chose to collaborate with an American artist, right?

Yes—Lexie Smith. I’ve followed her on Instagram for what, (like three years?) because she’s so sexy, cool and interesting. She just followed the @sendb00ks account, and I was so excited. So I asked her to collaborate.

Originally, we really wanted to send a book called Hunger by Knut Hamsun, he’s a Norwegian writer. We just thought it would be a great pairing because, besides the fact that her art works with food, we wanted to write about how people fetishize bread, and now with gluten intolerance, and the choice whether or not to consume bread in the western world; it puts you in different groups. It’s almost like you’re worshiping this thing which has actually been the staple of most people’s diets since almost the beginning of humanity. And so in the book, the character walks around and all these towns just like staring into boulangerie windows desperate to buy bread.

Basically, Penguin couldn’t sell it in England. So that was so shit. We did loads of work. In the end, we ended up sending a book of essays by Jean Rhys. She’s one of my favorite writers. And in the end, my best friend Katie ended up writing a really beautiful essay tying the two artists’ work together.  I asked Lexie to make something from scratch, so she did these beautiful breads and did a portrait series. Similarly to the book, Lexie did a recipe for the bread and it’s actually written on the back of the postcard.

It’s cool to create these connections for people, it’s investing such a special little community.

The the idea is to continue investing in that community by putting out a podcast at the end of the month. We wanted to create a middle ground for people that aren’t necessarily in school; we wanted to create a place where people could have these amazing conversations you had with say, your favorite literature professor in school. Katie’s argument was—she’s a tough girl, a nice one, but she’s a visionary. She was annoyed at me when I was started sending these books. She didn’t want me to send books to people that just thought it looked cool, but would never read it.

It didn’t really bother me and but she wanted me to try and make sure that whoever was buying these books were understanding them properly, you know? She had a point. So yeah, we do the podcast together.

What does the future of Sendb00ks look like?

One girl I’m working with—Siobhan, she’s extremely smart and motivated and it just happened that she was looking for a flat around the same time me and my boyfriend would be moving to LA and Mexico for a year (he is a writer and we’re going to keep the project running from overseas)  and while I’m gone, Siobhan will take over the apartment and it will become Sendb00ks HQ. So any of the “librarians” or people that want to help and work at on the project, they can stay there to help out.

Through sending out all these books, have you come across any interesting readers (besides the people you’ve recruited to work with)?

I actually met Lily Cole—I reached out to her and she coincidentally was clearing out her flat and let me take all of her old books. But to be honest, every person I’ve spoken to you about the project has told me all these beautiful little stories.

It’s lovely to see Instagram working in such a beautiful way.

I spent way too much time on Instagram and it used to make me feel horrible, but if I spend it trying to share and exchange of meaningful knowledge, meaningful emotion. It makes such a difference.

Images courtesy of Fiona Feder

Styling & Creative Direction by Eline Hoyois

Production Assistant: Leonie Miller-Aichholz

Stay tuned to Milk for more artists on the rise.

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