I decided to try something a little different this week. I'm dedicating this post to work put out by the smallest presses of all: individuals who publish their own writing by stapling it together on their kitchen tables. These people are of course also known as zinesters.
I made a visit to Needles & Pens, the DIY culture boutique/magazine stand/art gallery on 16th Street between Guerrero and Dolores, next door to Creativity Explored. Needles & Pens used to reside in a teeny space on 14th Street, where there was a curtained loft space above the cash register area, which led me to believe the proprietors were actually living in the back. And it used to only be open four days a week -- presumably because said proprietors needed other jobs to keep things running. Times have changed; the current shop is twice as big as the old one, it's open every day, and, for good or ill, you no longer feel like you're walking into somebody's living room.
But Needles & Pens is still clearly a labor of love for the folks who work there, and it's stocked with labors of love from other overworked and underpaid creators around the country. Half the shop is handmade clothing (thus, "Needles") and accessories like wallets, purses, and jewelry. The other half is printed matter (hence, "Pens"): zines, magazines, comic books, art books, stationery, calendars, as well as a small gallery space.
Tara, the woman behind the counter that day, gave me permission to use her name "as long as [your article]'s not going to be all like 'oh man that girl was so dumb'". So let me just state for the record: Tara is definitely not dumb. I laid out the ground rules for the experiment: If I wanted to get 4 or 5 great zines, and spend about twenty bucks, what should I get? With Tara's expert advice, I walked out with five little books, spent just over twenty dollars, and became happily acquainted with five new voices that ranged from "meh" to utterly transcendent. Here they are, in order of price:
Ker-Bloom! #70 by Artnoose. Price: $2.00.
This zine, as well as the rest of the five in my random sample, is the size of a regular sheet of paper folded in half twice -- a little bigger than the palm of your hand. For many, many years, Ker-Bloom! was based out of Oakland, and was a fixture at zine shows and at the Anarchist Bookfair. Normally, Ker-Bloom! contains musings on personal relationships or radical politics, or the places where both intersect. It's also normally set by hand on a letterpress. It appears, though, that Ker-Bloom! and its creator have decamped to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and maybe its unusual format this time reflects the upheaval. Instead of letterpressed text, we get silkscreened cartoons, "Yins-ville comix." A variety of odd characters speak the kind of sentences that apparently one often overhears in the Iron City: "So I bought a huge house but all my housemates moved out and bought their own houses." A talking dinosaur skeleton says, "I just went to a ten hour bike collective meeting. Now I'll ravage the city!" If you're wondering why the Ker-Bloom! lady moved to Pittsburgh, a clue might be found on the page where a giant man happily shouts "I just bought a $4000 house in Braddock! Skidoooo!" (That's not a typo. FOUR thousand dollars. For a HOUSE.)
Brainscan #22: "A Practical Body Modification" by Alex Wrekk. Price: $2.00
This zine is very pretty, with a delicately designed package and cover. It comes in a birthday-card-sized envelope, and since the topic of this issue is the author's intrauterine contraceptive device, the envelope has a little sketch of an IUD in gold ink. The cover of the actual zine has a very small, full-color photocopy of an anatomical drawing of a uterus. Unfortunately the interior text is a little bit sterile (no pun intended, ha) and marred by numerous crossed-out typos. This kind of zine comes out of a long tradition of women's consciousness-raising and skill-sharing, and if one was considering getting an IUD, this would be helpful reading. As light entertainment, not so much. All of this probably also applies to Brainscan #21, which is about escaping an abusive relationship. Alex Wrekk, a resident of Portland, Oregon, also wrote Stolen Sharpie Revolution, a nuts-and-bolts guide to zine publishing, now in its third edition.
Dream Date by Chelsea Martin. Price: $3.00
This one is pretty weird. A tiny booklet with pink pages, it alternates between ink-washed drawings of disembodied arms, and surreal paragraphs of disembodied text. "You're standing in front of a painting of two deer grazing...you notice that one of the deer seems to be trying to impress the other by grazing in a very sexual manner. You think this must be the deer that represents your boyfriend; he would totally try to have sex during a meal." For some reason, my copy is all crumpled like it already spent time in someone's back pocket. Chelsea Martin's website, jerkethics.com, is even weirder. Dig around and you'll find a link to the full text of Dream Date.
Sobstory? #8 by Andrew Scott. Price: $3.50
Andrew Scott is the co-proprietor of Needles & Pens. It's not surprising, then, that his own zine is pretty darn professional-looking, looking like it was done with Photoshop and inDesign, instead of an x-acto knife and rubber cement. He tells the story of a spontaneous trip to Europe, interspersed with photos and musings about America's place in the world and modern life in general. He starts with a perceptive essay about how technology has changed the zine scene irrevocably: "I'm a bit concerned that everything I once used to enjoy holding in my hands will turn into something that will have to be looked at through a screen. I worry that eventually there won't be anything left on earth that's actually tangible, as the physical is devoured by the virtual." He's not too wistful, though, about those tangible things. "Can you imagine anything more ludicrous than selling printed blogs to people?" And yet, that's what he does, apparently with enough customers to run a brick-and-mortar shop full of tangibles. The zine is far from dead or dying, thanks to Andrew Scott and others like him.
Dream Whip #14 by Bill Brown. Price: $11.00
Wow. if the other four zines were appetizers, Dream Whip is the main course. It seems a little unfair to even call it a zine when it's more like a book. Published by Microcosm, a Portland-based publisher and distributor, it has an ISBN number and feels like a little brick, fat with several hundred teeny perfectly-bound pages. The quality of the writing -- hand-lettered in Brown's even, square, all-caps handwriting -- is absolutely tremendous. A native of Lubbock, Texas, Brown describes helping migrants in the border deserts, traveling across America via Amtrak, and taking a freighter ship to Europe.
Although some parts are superficially similar to Sobstory? (a solo, sensitive American dude wandering around Europe, in search of something, but what?) Bill Brown, also a filmmaker, proves that the difference between decent writing and transcendently beautiful writing is all in the author's powers of observation. He knows exactly which tiny detail to zoom in on and magnify. In France, he watches a little girl ("with a black, kid-sized valise and a serious expression") ride a train by herself. "For the next few stops. I feel like I've stumbled into some dreamed-up world. A place beyond harm, where school kids ride alone on the local trains past country houses with red tile roofs. At a village called Audruicq, the little girl steps off. Then the train rolls back into the world where I'm from, where there's no such thing as a place beyond harm." He doesn't ever need to mention strained Franco-American relations, the Iraq War, or George W. Bush for you to understand exactly what he's talking about.
In Germany, Brown notices, strangers don't greet one another when they enter crowded train compartments. "But when this person finally gets up to leave, they'll always pause by the door and say "Tschuss", meaning "so long." As if this is what's worth acknowledging: not the hours spent traveling with strangers, but the brief, poignant moment of saying goodbye to them."
From beginning to end, Dream Whip just aches with sweet, lonely beauty. The book ends with Brown moving to Detroit, a city that seems to provide great fodder for zinemaking, full of its own lonely, decaying beauty. If I ever meet Bill Brown, I may propose marriage immediately.
Blogs are a dime a dozen. They require very little financial investment on the part of the creator, and none at all on the part of the reader. It takes a bigger, more special burst of inspiration to make a physical object out of your life experience. I feel like I've shared a moment with each of these folks, and I'm grateful for it. I highly recommend visiting Needles & Pens -- or any independent bookshop, boutique, or comics shop in your neighborhood that has a rack of self-published zines on display -- and share a moment of your own.
Needles & Pens is located at 3253 16th Street, between Guerrero and Dolores Streets in San Francisco. Open every day from noon to 7pm.