Gemma Janes is turning beloved literature into covetable art books
In the era of the celebrity book stylist, the model and founder of sendb00ks makes reading a sensual experience.
Photos courtesy of Gemma Janes
Gemma Janes started reading in a serious way because she was always in bookstores. She was always in bookstores because she was modelling. When you’re a model, you’re constantly working with others and any downtime can leave you feeling lonesome. At 17, Gemma’s friends were away at university and she was left to her own devices in London, going from casting to casting, reading whenever she could and frequenting all manner of book shops. “I found that no one really disturbed me when I was reading,” she says. “I was a teenager, and being a teenager can be lonely. You don’t know how you feel about anything yet.”
So she read more. And once Gemma fell in love with reading, her whole world opened up. She devoured everything: Leonora Carrington, Katherine Mansfield, Franz Kafka, Audre Lorde. Classics, obscure postmodern novels by women, autotheory à la Miss Maggie Nelson and Roland Barthes. It made life more beautiful. When Gemma would visit a new place, whatever she was reading became a part of the story. Like, she tells me, how she has to read Moby Dick because of a recent trip to the Hamptons. Or how she found a copy of The Lover by Marguerite Duras on the side of the road in LA. It’s all very magical the way she describes it: “I discovered it quite literally on the roadside in Los Angeles,” she explains. “I sat by the pool and read the whole thing in a day; the Oscars were on in the evening and it was my first time in LA. I didn't care. I was 100 percent with Duras crossing the river.”
All that whimsy or magic or whatever you want to call it led to Gemma starting sendb00ks, a registered cultural association and online platform where she and her team collaborate with artists and photographers to design special dust jackets for beloved literature. Basically, Gemma hits up someone she admires and either asks them to design a cover for a book she’s already picked or to do the same for one of their personal favourites.
She once saw a painting by the artist Inès Di Folco that reminded her of the book Sula by Toni Morrison. She asked Inès if she’d ever read it and she hadn’t, but when she did, she was so inspired that she made a vivid, figurative painting of Sula and Nel that Gemma used to create a special sendb00ks edition of the novel. She turned the artwork into a book jacket, printed it, then advertised it on her Instagram and website before wrapping it up in brown paper and shipping it around the world. Gemma’s been doing this since 2017, with sendb00ks becoming a fully-fledged operation over time. It’s all very romantic.
I meet Gemma for a coffee on a cloudy day in Brooklyn. Usually based in Paris — right now she lives in the Marais — she’s in New York to promote her new edition of Marguerite Duras’ The Lover (yes, the same book she fell in love with because she found it in LA). She hands me a mock-up of the dust jacket when we first start chatting. It features art designed by Marie Hazard, a French textile artist. It’s a purple and red spiral, and looks organic, soft, nimbusy. Like an appliqué detailing on an opulent quilt. When we meet, she’s in the process of printing the rest of the dust jackets ahead of the party she’s throwing at Left Bank Books in the West Village.
Gemma has events like the one at Left Bank with some frequency. When she travels, she’ll try to find a bookstore to either sell copies of a sendb00ks edition, or just organise a window of some of her own books. She’ll curate them, in other words. Gemma has a real knack for organising books in an artful way. Without being too crass — she styles them. One time, she tells me, she went into a bookstore in Mexico City with a suitcase of books, hoping she could convince the owners of the store to let her exhibit them. “I decided I was just going to be brave,” she laughs. “When I got to the store they were like, ‘We’d love to do this’.”
The story as to how Gemma ended up collaborating with Left Bank is way less serendipitous. She got paired up on a project over the winter with Erik DuRon and Jess Kuronen, the store’s owners, and eventually they decided to do an event together. When I arrive at the bookstore a few days later, the vibe is extremely Parisian. It’s about 900 degrees out and the space is full of chic people wearing vintage Manolos and Yeezys and mini dresses and suits drinking natural wine. I recognise about three models from Instagram even though I don’t have one. You get the idea.
The main attraction of the event is of course the special edition of The Lover and the windows Gemma has styled. They’re really stunning and I briefly want to drop mad dollars on a rare copy of some Fanny Howe poems. But I don’t and instead just mingle and have some thoughts about fashion people who read. Like, isn’t it maybe a little bit weird to treat books as status-y objects of beauty? It literally is a phenomenon and it’s pretty easy to feel cynical about the state of reading when we are in fact living in the era of book stylists and celebrities being papped reading Chelsea Hodson and Ottessa Mosfegh. But also, isn't it good and cool that maybe the same people who are buying books because they are beautiful are ALSO reading weirder shit, as a result? Am I not the kind of chick who once got a copy of Samuel Beckett’s Three Novels because the book was pretty and then read three pages of it before deciding I was too stupid for Molloy?
Ultimately, it’s a beautiful event and so many people are about to own The Lover who didn’t own it before and that is a very good thing. Gemma is in her element the whole time, getting people to open up about their histories just by talking books, swirling around some orange wine while wearing a pair of beautiful Gucci loafers. “The heatwave made for a magical mood,” Gemma says after the event. “I love readers; they’re all sensitive people who want to share what inspires them. That is why the project has always felt so joyful. There’s no competition or criticism that I have encountered. It feels very supportive.”