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Fascination with shopping carts brings rare honor to an artist

A Buffalo artist is the recipient of a quirky international prize for his even quirkier book: "The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification."

Julian Montague, 34, has earned London-based Bookseller/Diagram's first prize for oddest book title.

The West Side artist described "Stray Shopping Carts," published by Harry N. Abrams, as an art project through which he has meticulously documented and cataloged photographs of wayward shopping carts he has come across in Western New York and beyond.

Montague knew several weeks ago that his book had been nominated for the bizarre award. But it wasn't until he checked his e-mail Thursday evening -- before the formal announcement Friday -- that he learned he had won the top honor.

"I was about to go watch the hockey game," Montague said, "and it was the BBC asking: 'Do you want to do an interview with us?' "

He completed the interview just in time to make the third period of the game between the Buffalo Sabres and the New York Islanders.

Since then, he has been inundated with requests from mostly British media, as well as the Associated Press.

"My Web site [www.strayshoppingcart.com] has been deluged with hits," he told The Buffalo News on Sunday.

The shopping cart book, released about a year ago, hadn't exactly been a runaway hit, Montague acknowledged.

"It's a book you need to hear about from somewhere else," he said.

But he's now seeing a lot of traffic on Amazon.com and other online bookstores with the recent flurry of attention that he hopes will mean better sales.

The inspiration for his book came about six years ago, Montague said, as he was driving near the intersection of Delaware and Hertel avenues.

"I just noticed there were shopping carts everywhere," he recounted. "There was something going on there."

He began photographing the carts he noticed around town: abandoned on corners, crumpled by snowplows and submerged in water. He grew especially fond of the carts he found in and around Scajaquada Creek.

He then began to develop a taxonomy for the thousands of carts he documented: a hyperserious classification process not unlike those used by botanists and ornithologists.

"I made up a language to address this phenomenon [of stray shopping carts,]" he explained. "I've written this whole system, and it actually works. I did it in an honest way, and because it's so detailed, it's absurd and therefore funny."

The feedback on his book and Web site has mostly been positive, with many people reporting that having seen Montague's work, they now can't stop seeing shopping carts everywhere they go.

"Some people think I'm a complete lunatic and I need to get a life," Montague said with a laugh.

"Overall, most people do seem to appreciate it. And it's not just art people. A broad range of people find it interesting. It's something they can understand. It speaks to a common experience."

He laughed off any possibility that his book had anything to do with a recent Common Council debate about whether to impound stray carts and charge stores to get them back.

He did note that North Buffalo, where the Mayor's Impact Team found more than 100 carts last summer, is "very prime area" for stray shopping carts and that he has documented many in the area, too.

But these days, Montague has moved on from shopping carts. He's on to a new project.

"Something to do with spiders," he said.

Montague is doing a reading from his award-winning book at 8 p.m. April 24 in Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center as part of the Talking Leaves Books 32nd-anniversary series featuring several writers.

e-mail: mbecker@buffnews.com

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