Words Kirk Truman
Portrait Carla Borel
“We were partners. We did everything together. I was working on developing the gallery; he was working on developing the books. We were a working couple…”
In the nooks and crannies of this rare, eccentric space at the corner of Riding House and Candover Street, there is a distinct rumour of a man who briefly wondered about the room. A man who sat on a large, rather peculiar British racing green sofa. The story of an arrival here alongside a parade of publications, all tackling difficult topics, is that of Gigi Giannuzzi, or ‘the trolley man’. An inscription above the doorway reads TJ Boulting & Sons, whilst another says Gas & Electrical Engineers, Established 1808 – a factory, a bygone studio or the home of Trolley Books? Surprise greets me behind the doors of this wonderful building where so little is known of its past. Gigi’s successor, Hannah Watson explains the story behind the title Trolley Books & TJ Boulting, the toughness of the creative publishing industry and the passing of her friend and former lover.
Gigi was born in 1960s Rome. To escape military service, he moved to London in 1986 where a friend of his father helped him to find a job working on the logistics of importing fish. He worked in numerous roles afterwards, including tour manager for Big Audio Dynamite (BAD) and later in banking. His first chance to work in publishing was with Rizzoli in Italy and, after numerous publishing endeavours and with no financial support, he set up his first independent publishing house called Westzone with his friend Guido Costa. The first book the publishing house released was Ten Years After: Naples 1986-1996 by Nan Goldin. A paperback, it was originally published in Italian and managed to sell 14,000 copies.
The publishing house went on to produce numerous books, including a controversial edition displaying a series of photographs by Zed Nelson, documenting the American ‘macho gun culture’, called Gun Nation (2000). With Westzone falling into financial ruin, Gigi sold the company to a UK group but managed to remain in a directorial position. However, after just over a year, Gigi resigned, feeling squeezed out by his fellow directors. As you’d expect, Gigi was devastated following the end of his baby, though it wasn’t long until a trolley made a somewhat unconventional appearance.
Trolley Books was started in Venice in 2001. Gigi spent time going back and forth between Venice and London, eventually basing the business in the east-end. The name Trolley Books originates from the Frankfurt Book Fair which, I am told, Gigi attended in a red velvet suit and, instead of paying for a stand, he pushed a shopping trolley around with all of his ideas and book proposals. He would, according to Hannah, just continue this whilst walking around the isles talking to people: “He was known as the trolley man. People knew him as being this crazy Italian guy in a red velvet suit beavering around not giving a shit about the confines of having a stand.” Hannah fondly expresses, “He had his own stand, he couldn’t give a shit. Gigi did it his own way, he had his own style and approach” She jokes that one day the red velvet suit will one day hang in the Victoria and Albert museum.
After its original base on Long Street, Trolley was re-located to Redchurch Street in the heart of Shoreditch in a space comprised of a gallery at the front of house and an office for the Trolley office toward the back. As well as the home of his business, the address also acted as Gigi’s living quarters. Hannah Watson was first introduced to Gigi in 2005, during a period of the work experience with the publisher. After a stint at the Guggenheim in Venice, she was approached by Gigi to return to London to work from there. At this point, Gigi had taken his usual route of falling out with the people he worked with – it was suddenly just him and Hannah on Redchurch Street. Given her background in art, Hannah pushed to grow the space as a gallery.
While Hannah was working on developing the Gallery, Gigi focused on growing Trolley Books and establishing the publisher as a maverick of its field focusing primarily on reportage, contemporary art and photography. Trolley Books has since grown and is established within the publishing and photographic industries for its originality and approach towards photo book publishing. As a publisher it has also become renowned for its support of underexposed stories and happenings in the world, a tradition at the heart of Gigi’s dream: “He wanted to do books about difficult subjects as he felt that they needed to be written. There was a core bravery to what he wanted to do but no income. He was a man of passion,” Hannah tells me.
Whilst working together, Hannah and Gigi’s relationship evolved into a more personal one, and Hannah explains the closeness of their partnership that would eventually lead to this coupling, “We were partners. We did everything together. I was working on developing the gallery, he was working on developing the books. We were a working couple.”
Noting the rise of Shoreditch and the changing of Redchurch Street, soon many local landlords sought to benefit from the boom. For a long time, the street had been a gallery street – but, with rental fees rising, many local businesses were pushed out of the area, including Trolley Books.
Thus, Hannah and Gigi looked to resettle their gallery and publishing house their eyes turned to Fitzrovia, soon finding the small gallery space at the corner of Riding House Street and Candover Street, which had formally been a purpose-built art and crafts factory, a somewhat appropriate history. At this stage, their relationship began to break down, ending early 2011. However, the two decided to remain close friends and business partners, moving into the Riding House Street gallery space nearly a year later, having had to wait for the construction work to be completed.
Shortly after their move to Fitzrovia, Trolley Books, with its portfolio of photojournalism and contemporary art publishing, made the decision to also begin publishing fiction. This decision was, in part, down to a specific author, Iphgenia Baal, from whom Gigi had rented her spare room during the interlude between Shoreditch and Fitzrovia. At this stage, with Hannah’s art background having had an influence over Trolley Books, it was decided that the gallery would be given its own identity. And so, the publishing house and gallery began to be run as separate businesses, united under one roof on Riding House Street. After considering various titles, it was when Hannah and Gigi took a step outside and, looking upon the mosaic wall display on the side of the Riding House Street corner building, it was agreed that the gallery would be called TJ Boulting.
With the gallery and publishing house now location in an area the two admired, things were on the up. Gigi had ideas about starting another publishing house in Mexico City – he was some way down the line in setting it up with his new girlfriend, Masumi Rioja, when he received a piece of daunting news. In June 2012, Gigi was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. The art world came to his assistance, with the likes of Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst donating their workto help fund his cancer treatment. In his final months, he lived in a small flat, close to the Riding House Street gallery on Hanson Street. Growing weaker, Gigi was visited by many of the artists, writers and photographers to have worked with him over the years. Unfortunately, he lost the fight and died on Christmas Eve, 2012.
Today, Trolley Books is based on the ground floor of Riding House Street, the tattered red velvet suit once worn by Gigi hangs next to the large green sofa he sat upon. In the high-ceilinged basement below lies the gallery space of TJ Boulting. On the ground floor Hannah works from a large wooden desk, surrounded by the archives of the various Trolley Books publications. She carries on without her friend and former lover from whom she has clearly learnt so much about the industry and indeed herself. A passionate, outspoken man with particular taste, I imagine that Fitzrovia Journal would be a magazine that Gigi Giannuzzi would’ve loved. I’m sure that our passion for publishing would’ve gone hand in hand. As I deliver the journal on a bike, I am reminded of the infamous trolley. Goodnight old boy and thank you for your trolleyology.