Fast friendships don’t usually figure into most gallerists’ business plans, but it’s been at the heart of Mark Pinsukanjana and Bryan Yedinak’s. The two have known each other since 1987, when they were roommates at California State University, Long Beach. Ten years after graduation, in 1999, they launched Modernbook gallery in Palo Alto, and they haven’t looked back since. Their space, which is part boutique bookstore, part gallery, showcases contemporary photography by a stable of 40 artists and proffers publications on topics from architecture to graphic design. (The two even formed a publishing company, MB Editions, in 2005). Engineers from local tech firms like Apple, Google, and Adobe, as well as Silicon Valley venture capitalists make up most of the gallery’s clientele, and many are first-time art buyers, grateful for the space’s welcoming vibe. “If anyone had told me ten years ago that I would be running an art gallery with my best friend that is well respected in the community, I’d say you’re out of your mind,” says Mark. “But really we are having so much fun. We worked hard, and we worked smart, and we had a little luck along the way.”
Mark, 41, was born in Thailand and came to America at the age of eight when his family settled here. He grew up in Palo Alto and eventually headed down to Long Beach to study business and finance. Bryan, 44, grew up in Boston, dabbling in drawing and painting as well as sports. Bryan majored in art history at Cal State; Mark, in business, but despite their separate career paths after college, the two always stayed in touch. “We were in the same dorm, and we both had roommates who were partyers and drinkers,” says Bryan. “We were the guys who would go to cafes and look at books.” After graduation, Bryan moved up to Seattle and worked for United Airlines doing ticketing for four years, then moved to the Bay Area and worked for Trader Joe’s. Mark, meantime, took the secure and steady path in San Francisco, serving as comptroller for the Kimpton Hotel chain and later as CFO for the Berkeley Repertory Theater.
By the late ’90s, Mark and Bryan had both had enough of working for other people. They found a 1,200-square-foot bookstore for rent in Palo Alto and, using money the two had saved (in part by investing in the booming stock market of the late ’90s), they opened Modernbook. Bryan stocked lush titles by such publishers as Phaidon and Aperture, giving careful thought to how they were displayed. “People could touch them, open them. I think they responded to that,” says Bryan. The store itself, says Mark, “was like a blank canvas.” Their first show in 1999 consisted of fashion photography by Del Geranimo, whom they had discovered at a street fair; they quickly followed with shows by locally known, and later, nationally known photographers. Now the gallery-store’s stable is comprised of about 40 percent mid-career artists (like Jefferson Hayman, who fills frames of his own creation with sepia-toned images he’s shot with his Leica), 40 percent mature artists (like 77-year-old Fan Ho, whose scenes of Hong Kong from the 1950s and ’60s play elegantly with light and shadow), and 20 percent emerging artists (including Patricia McClung who makes digitally collaged, large-scale color prints).
“Our name is so deceiving; what is Modernbook?” says Mark. “But really we are a gallery disguised as a bookstore, where the art can be accessible, and there’s no intimidation. I always tell my staff, when a customer walks in the door, you have to say ‘hello.’”