Thursday, September 26, 2013

Indie Bookstore of the Month: Guide to Kulchur

Have you noticed that the lovers, makers, and sellers of print culture refuse to give up on print and its continued relevance? In 2010 it was Atomic Books and Quimby's call for The Revenge of Print. In recent months, it's been the thriving indie bookstores of Bushwick, Brooklyn; the used booksellers of Khartoum, Sudan working to revive reading and restore the city to its former literary glory; The Taksim Square Book Club; and reports from Mexico City's Under the Volcano Books that the paperback fiction business is booming, as their Mexican readers hunger for stories and become increasingly disenchanted with "Face" (their nickname for Facebook). Add to this list Guide to Kulchur, a Cleveland new and used bookstore that arrived on the scene in June 2013. A combination curated bookshop, zine-making co-op, meeting and reading space, small-press friendly store, and zine archive, Guide to Kulchur was invented by Riot Grrrl historian Lyz Bly and her husband, poet/DIY entrepreneur RA Washington, who want to put the means of production into the hands of one west-side rustbelt neighborhood while showcasing both the local and national zine and small press scenes. Here's what they told me:

Karen the Small Press Librarian: In addition to selling books and zines, your shop (which opened in 2013) is aggressively promoting print culture, offering the means of production for zines and chapbooks. What do you have to say to the naysayers who tell us the e-book is the future, and print is dead?

RA: There will always be folks that want to read in the physical, the issue is whether we can get these printed materials into their hands, into their field of vision. I think that the e-book has seen its rebuttal, for more and more people are printing, looking for ways to print, to fine print. If you can make it something that new writers and readers covet, then we can have a communal success. Small press have advantage over the big ones, but only if folks like you build alternative media outlets to help them get the word out.

Karen: You and Lyz want to create a zine archive that will amass evidence of "resistance" in rust-belt Cleveland, and start a dialogue with other dire-straits cities whose zinesters have left a record of similar resistance. While some point to social media phenomena like "The Twitter Revolution" as proof that we've "moved on," what part do you think print culture still plays or can play in grassroots movements and politics of the people? Do you think Twitter and zines address people at different levels in the business of consciousness-raising?

Lyz: I would put a zine in their hands and then ask them to look at one online. It’s a completely different experience. Through my research for my dissertation and soon to be book (Gender and Generation X: Riot Grrrls, Slackers, Sex, and Feminism), I studied thousands of zines at the Sallie Bingham Collection at Duke, the Sophia Smith Archives at Smith College, and the Riot Grrrl Zine Collection at Fales/NYU Library. There is nothing quite like picking up a zine and having a bit of glitter land on your lap, or noticing coffee stains or yellowing paper from a particularly loved and read zine. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been organizing the zine collection we’ve amassed thus far at Guide to Kulchur. The tactile experience of holding something that someone created out of love or desperation—whether it’s haphazardly stapled together or meticulously ordered—is not something that you can match digitally.

RA: I do think that print that is designed well, written well will always be a tool of dissent. Twitter can be too, but its a sound bite tool. I think the speed [at which] it moves can be off-putting to folks. Progressive people just have to step our game up with trying to counteract these huge media selling tools. We just have to have better content and not be afraid to say it is better.

Karen: When you began inventing Guide to Kulchur, what made you want to open an indie bookstore in 2013? What audience did you imagine would embrace your shop? Or are you looking to create an audience that wasn't yet there?

RA: We wanted to create a curated reading culture, for us this meant making sure that the books were essential, that there was diversity in the offering and a strong small press presence. We also wanted to provide the public with a store that had a real good eye and was fairly priced. We give a bulk of the sales to all independent bookmakers, small presses and authors. We were making a statement with this obviously, but we wanted A. for people to value the work of the independent /D.I.Y. makers, and B. to say to other bookstores that there are business models that can be created where we do not have to take a huge cut out of the small pie. So we chose to stay away from the large distro vehicles. We chose to not have a credit account with the huge media sellers, mainly because folks can get those books cheaper on Amazon than we can sell them. This allows us to exist without having a debt relationship with the companies that won’t even consider distributing small presses because those presses don't print in higher quantities.

Lyz: The audience on the near west side in the Gordon Square Arts District needs to be cultivated. There are young people who were drawn to the up-and-coming neighborhood for its proximity to downtown and emerging restaurants, bars, and shops. And artists and thinkers are always early colonizers of neighborhoods that will become eventual bastions of hip (I remember when my friend, artist Terry Durst, moved from Kent State University to Tremont in the mid-1980s—most people had no idea where the neighborhood was or that it even existed). Yes, you need bars and restaurants, but you also need art and ideas in these emergent communities. Otherwise it’s just empty capitalism packaged as “cool.” We want something authentic. You don’t get to wear the Beauvoir or Baldwin t-shirt unless you’ve read their work.

Karen: There are some impressive indie bookstores in Cleveland: Visible Voice, Mac's Backs, Loganberry Books. How do you fit in with the Cleveland scene, and how do you differentiate yourself from the others? Is yours a neighborhood bookstore or a destination shop, or both?

RA: There are some awesome bookstores in Cleveland, and I think we work well together to service a very well-read city. We wanted to be a destination and a neighborhood store, because where we are located is situated west of Visible Voice and we carry stuff that is not in competition with them. So you could go to both in afternoon and have two totally different experiences. Also we do not take a cut of small press publications. We also service manual typewriters, have an extensive zine/chapbook library, and a co-op where you can make a zine, go get it printed and spend your money on printing as opposed to the tools you need to make the master product. Glue sticks, rotary presses, Sharpies, typewriters, collage materials and paper all cost money--so our thinking was if there was a place where we could share those costs, it would be easier to produce more zines. Eventually we will have letterpress machines, old etching presses and the like so you could try new methods to print.

Karen: Do you imagine Guide to Kulchur becoming a player in the national bookstore scene, like Quimby's or Atomic Books? Do you have favorite bookstores in other cities, or bookstores or cultural centers that influenced your concept for Guide to Kulchur?

RA: Yes, we already are starting that journey, but it’s not a goal. It’s happening because some of the best writers in the world are finding out about it through other writers, and getting plugged in. And I was not kidding when I say world--we want to make a place that has a worldview, that offers respect to our backyard by displaying all of the work together. We do not have a “local section,” we have an independent book makers section, and that distinction will go very far in terms of goodwill, and building a critical mass.

Lyz: In August we took a delayed honeymoon in Europe. We spent a full week in Paris and we felt most at home at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore. We were enamored with the ethos of the place and with the design and the physical space, of course. But we were also so excited to read how the owner has written about books and feeling the physicality of the paper in one’s hands—the ways in which the characters in fiction texts are as real to him (and now his daughter who runs the Paris shop) as a person standing in front of him. We are not Shakespeare and Company by any means, but we embrace the same vision and—without knowing it—we used the same kind of language when writing about our goals for Guide to Kulchur.

Karen: Is Guide to Kulchur a non-profit, a side project, a literal co-op, or a business that pays employees (or owner/s) enough to live on? Do you think the kind of bookstore that employs several full-timers is a thing of the past? Are bookstores important enough for us to create and support them even if they aren't money-makers?

RA: Guide To Kulchur is not a 501(c)(3), it’s not a side project, it is not a cost share co-op in the traditional sense. The store exists strictly from the sales of the used/new books we find and sell. We have employees and we pay a living wage, but it is not enough to live on of course. How could it be? Lyz and I know that you have to hold down multiple jobs to do this work, so we do. It’s obvious to me that bookstores are important, and they should have our support as long as the business model allows for the bookstore to pay for itself. It is not a profit type of thing. you are not going to put together a huge savings, but if you follow a creative capitalist approach--if you keep in mind that the deck is stacked against all of us that are not extremely wealthy--then you can make a difference, and stay relevant and open for a long time.

Karen: Guide to Kulchur, besides being the title of an Ezra Pound collection of essays, was a project you started a few years ago where people in different cities could print out each other's books and distribute them locally. How did this work, logistically—the book printing, the distro, or finding willing authors in other cities? And how did this work, as in how did it succeed? About how many writers or other people got involved, and how many books were distributed this way?

RA: Wow, how did you know about that? It's something we still want to do, and it worked on a small scale. I think most writers have this notion that some press is going to swoop down and offer them the Bukowski deal, and its not going to happen. The way you make it as a writer is you write, and you read, and you print, and you meet, and you collaborate and you distribute. It's work, and it's very rare that someone will do all of that for you, so you have to do it for yourself. If a press publishes you, you have to get out and help them sell the book. So many times you have writers who are not willing to hit the road, beat the pavement and get out and sell their work. It doesn't happen magically, but if you do that for long enough, if you honor your commitments, you can build a readership and you will die published. That's the only way. there is no shortcut. I don’t even know if I answered your question!

Karen: Tell us how many cities participated in Guide to Kulchur, the publishing/distro experiment.

RA: We had sixteen cities across the world participate, and we were able to distro some limited edition broadsides and even did some group translation work where a poem in, say, French would be in Spanish, Russian, and English. Some really interesting new writers across the globe, so many that I'm trying to bring the program back. The counties involved outside the US included France, Belgium, Argentina, Mexico, South Africa, and Ireland. We lost money, all of us did, but for me it was an awesome project.

Karen: What's the significance of the Ezra Pound book or title for you?

RA: I love that book, I found a copy at Mac's Backs when I was 17, thinking I was a writer. It opened me up to so many aspects of literary thought/critical and how zany Pound is. The myth is he said that the book was a blueprint for writers looking to avoid the corporate college and that if you read it, you would have all you needed for a life in letters. I think it's true.

Karen: Are zines important to literature, to publishing, to information dissemination, or to culture at large? Does literature get created on a Trickle Up basis, but is perceived to work as Trickle Down? Or is that using someone else's terms to describe something more complex?

RA: I don’t know about the terms, but it makes sense, and it’s a good question.

Lyz: In a democracy, all voices are important. There are some zines that may seem silly now—documenting your thrift store finds (as in the writers of the well-known zine Thrift Score once did) may seem superficial and about reifying consumption, but as a historian I can tell you that there’s something to glean about culture from any zine you pick up. And the U.S. has a history of self-publishing Alice Paul and Lucy Burns of the National Woman’s Party published a radical (for its time) newspaper on women’s rights while they were fighting for suffrage and even the Declaration of Independence was initially published as a Dunlap broadside and read widely before it became the document we know today.


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