Sunday, July 24, 2011

Meet the Author at the Bus Station: Or, How to Book an Affordable Zine Tour in Tight Times

Zines on wheels: The Fly Away Zine Mobile toured through Pittsburgh in July 2011.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the rise of author signings in airport bookstores ("Meet the Author at the Airport"). I loved this image of an author touring without even leaving the transportation hubs, and having a roster of signings dedicated to travelers.

But airport bookstores are unlikely to cater to small press readings any time soon. Likewise, many small and micro press writers would be financially deterred from touring by airplane. For writers from our side of the tracks we have discount buslines, those new web-booked, low-overhead, curbside, wifi-equipped, post-Chinatown bus lines like Megabus and Bolt Bus that cost riders as little as $1 per trip. A few weeks ago, I interviewed zinester Ocean about her August 2011 zine tour via Megabus, the "High on Unemployment Tour."

The tour name refers to both her current unemployment checks (her government job shuts down in the summer) and her current zine series, "High on Burning Photographs." Ocean's storytelling is intense, compelling, and intensely personal, as she offers hilarious, poignant, inspiring, or heart-wrenching dispatches from one young woman's "aging riot grrrl" life. Ocean's life as written has been full of adventure, full of tight friendships with vibrant and fearless friends, and full of astute reflections and complex observations from quieter seasons. Her scope is deep and wide, reporting stories from her kitchen table at 3:00am, from her local laundromat, from penpal conversations with prisoners, or from the landscape of young, queer America. Lucky for her readers, she's been recording her stories in xeroxed zines since 1996, when she was a young teenager.

Ocean originally hails from New York, but now lives and writes in Pittsburgh. Conveniently for her, Pittsburgh was recently made a Megabus hub connecting numerous points on the East Coast and the Midwest. On tour, she'll be concentrating on the cities of the Midwest, and she's excited to get to know that part of the country, with which she's not very familiar. Not all dates are set in stone yet, but she has plans to read in Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago (another Megabus hub), Madison, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis. Columbus is a maybe and she'll do a last reading back in New York.

Ocean is already a seasoned veteran of bus trips. "In most ways, I don't miss Greyhound, but with Greyhound, you know you'll always have a story," she mused as we talked in Pittsburgh's Lili Coffee Shop. Instead of heading to college, when she graduated from high school, she bought a three-month Discovery Pass on Greyhound. "There were the fights, the drunk people (who somehow manage to get past the strict no-drinking rules of Greyhound), and then there was the guy who asked me to marry him. We were just talking, and he said, 'Let's get married and go to LA.' We weren't even riding in the direction of LA." In those days, Ocean had a "Greyhound outfit" consisting of a silver tank top and a '50s style skirt patterned with pigs and clover. The idea was to dress "the kind of outlandish so that good people would approach me and bad people would stay away."

Ocean's also done her share of rides on the Chinatown bus: "They drive so fast, I always think I'm going to die." Similarly, a recent overnight bus ride between Warsaw and Lithuania was frightening for its high speeds. "I took a sleeping pill but I was too anxious to ever fall asleep." In contrast, Ocean calls Megabus "the sane bus." She loves riding in the top level for its views, even knowing about "the accident."

I was curious which method Ocean had used for finding reading venues in unfamiliar cities. "Sometimes I relied on word of mouth from friends, and other times I just typed the city's name and the word ZINE into Google to see what came up. It worked!" Though Google has been a helpful pointer, she still prefers to pick up the phone to book a venue. The process has been mostly gratifying: "Sometimes when I get in touch with people about an event, I find out they're already readers of my zine."


In Cleveland, Ocean will read (August 6th) at the longstanding literary bookstore, Mac's Backs, which has been open in Ohio since 1978, and in its current Cleveland Heights location since 1982. In Chicago, where she'll join up with a few zinester friends, Ocean plans to read at the quintessential DIY bookstore, Quimby's. Her Minneapolis venue is zine-friendly Boneshaker Books, and in Detroit she's excited to read at the anarchy space, the Trumbullplex, in conjunction with their new zine library. In Milwaukee she's hooking up with QZAP (Queer Zine Archive Project), in Madison she hopes to hit the Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative, and she'll wrap up with a reading at Bluestockings Bookstore in downtown Manhattan around late August or early September. For this last reading Ocean will pair up with the For the Birds feminist collective.

As for accommodations on a budget, Ocean's hoping to crash with her fellow readers in most cities, but when that doesn't work, she'll rely on her membership at or look up local hostels.

The young writer seemed excited about getting on the road to meet and greet the zine community. She talked about missing this aspect of the zine experience from her early days. "When I first got into zines, most people who read my zines would write me a letter back. That was normal--I guess before the internet we [zine writers] were all stranded in random places, desperate to find people we could relate to. Now I think I hear from about 10% of my readers. Even the zine ordering process is not as personal as it once was. Now we have these great distros, but back in the day, every zine had a zine review section. They gave the address and said 'send $1.'" These days Ocean usually skips the distros and sticks with mailing and handing out her zines to friends or longtime followers.

To get the latest issue of "High on Burning Photographs," send $1 or two stamps to:

PO Box 40144
Pittsburgh, PA 15201

Stay tuned for a full list of tour dates and venues for Ocean's High on Unemployment Tour.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

More Bookstore Briefs: Good News, Plus an Elegy

NYC's Word Up pop up bookstore has extended its run through the end of September! (via Word Up website)

DC's Busboys and Poets expanded to a fourth location (in Hyattsville, Md.) this week (via WSET)

Rebel Bookseller panel happens this Friday at Brooklyn's Greenlight Bookstore (The book's subtitle: Why Indie Businesses Represent Everything You Want to Fight For, From Free Speech to Buying Local to Building Communities)
(see the Facebook event page)

Pittsburgh's Big Idea bookstore will move to the avenue and gain a cafe and event space (via Big Idea website)

Book rep Ann Kingman asks whether bookmobiles can be the new food trucks? (via Twitter)

And book critic Scott McLemee has published a thoughtful essay, "The Bookstore at the End of the World": "The algorithms at Amazon are no match for an intelligent person behind the cash register." (via Inside Higher Education)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bookstore Briefs: The Bad News and the Good

East Liberty, Pittsburgh. Photo by Jamie Phillips, July 2011.

Borders Books is going out of business, 40 years after two brothers opened one small bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As the Detroit Free Press reports, liquidation sales could begin as early as Friday. A chain-wide closure will mean the loss of 400 stores and almost 11,000 jobs.

In other big news, Amazon will start renting e-textbooks via Kindle as soon as the Fall of 2011, an announcement that will affect university bookstores across the nation. Gabe Habash tells us how this will be bad for the bookstores, textbook publishers, and authors, but good for the students.

In good news, Greenlight Bookstore (a retail store in Fort Greene, Brooklyn) will expand its space and add a coffee bar by partnering with a local business. Greenlight opened in 2009.

Maple Street Book Shop in New Orleans will also expand, opening two new locations in the city, one in Faubourg St. John and another in Faubourg Marigny. Read more at the Gambit. Maple Street sells books both new and used & rare, and opened as a paperback bookstore in 1964.

I recently went back to Charlottesville, Virginia for the first time in 14 years. I was thrilled to find that Heartwood Books was still alive, still a stellar second-hand bookstore, and at least one familiar (unforgettable) face was still behind the counter. I especially enjoyed the Books On Books section.

Heartwood Books on Elliwood Avenue in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Book Review: BAD BAD BAD by Jesús Ángel García

Jesús Ángel García, badbadbad. Colorado: New Pulp Press, 2011. Fiction. 237 pages. ISBN: 978-0-9828436-3-5.

Jesús Ángel García's debut novel, badbadbad, is lousy with exquisite contradictions. The protagonist, Jesús Ángel García, is a fallen angel with a Jesus complex, a lost man with a mission. The novel is a bildungsroman told by a young man who is already divorced with a child; or do I mean a coming-of-age in reverse, an "adult child" seeking his own lost innocence? If he's looking for his innocence, it's through sexcapades with kinky chicks on the social web, and though he's enjoying a lot of sex dates, sex toys, and other Triple-X adventures in the Bible Belt South, he mainly seeks out troubled women who might need his healing powers of love and listening. He attends church services every Sunday morning, but that's just for appearances: He's more excited about evening performances by the local punk band Children's Crusade, but he makes a living as the webmaster for the biggest evangelical congregation in town. By day he forms allegiances with his custody lawyer and the Reverend; by night he shares bourbon and MP3s with the Reverend's excommunicated son. The story's a pulp fiction narrated (from jail? from beyond the grave?) to a younger brother he abandoned long ago to an abusive family. The novel's almost a stroke book, but some of the sex scenes are decidedly unappetizing. And although the novelist uses his own name for his protagonist, I have no idea (as reader) whether the book is thinly-veiled autobiography, metaphor for lived experience, or pure fabrication using the device of truthful confession.

One of the most perfect chapters is one where descriptions of a gay pride rally and a KKK march are intertwined. Both events attract the same two camps, it's just a matter of who's marching in the center (each in their own brand of costumes) and who's holding the protest placards on the sidelines. Another choice chapter sees Jesús (aka JAG) take a trip with two of the "fallen angels" (the name of the underground hook-up website JAG frequents) to a huge Southern tent show featuring "guns, knives, and dolls." The scene has a carnival atmosphere, even as it takes place under the kind of tent that (on another day) might house a religious revival. The "dolls" featured at the show are bikini-clad babes who pass out lemonade to shoppers and set up targets for customers enjoying their new guns. The weapons are lit by halogen lights as if they were jewels. The air smells of fried dough. JAG observes the families who push their baby strollers from booth to booth, window-shopping like they're at a mall. His "alt" friends encourage him (against his preferences) to buy a gun, a plot point that makes the reader wonder how alternative these kids really are. They teach JAG how to shoot, how to handle his gun, while the sexual healer imagines his ex-wife as the target. Nearby, some men have brought their own targets: images of black civil rights leaders. In the background, the sound of endless American war marches on.

Over and over in badbadbad, the plot reveals hypocrisies and paints contradictions within characters or scenes that once seemed to be only black and white. Other times it draws parallels and similarities between camps that are supposed to be polar opposites. Weren't the bigoted Bible-thumpers being set up as the bad guys and the queer-fabulous music-lovers the good fellows? What about the third-wave feminist hotties who are unashamed to declare what they want, but push their self-love to the point of shallowness? Are we being robbed of a symbology we thought we understood, or is García (the author) simply righting and complicating perceptions that were far too simplistic when we started reading?

JAG's story is full of people. But as characters enter, entice, and evaporate, one character remains. This reveal sneaks up on the reader: JAG is a narrator who provides some reflection, a certain amount of internal commentary along the way. But often enough the story reads like we're following him as an enchanted observer in a forest of wacky Southern characters—some long familiar, others new to the scene. Eventually, after the reader passes through all the distractions of colorful 21st Century punks, ravers, earth mamas, bondage queens, and neo-goths; after we wade through the rabid religious homophobes, Klansmen, and right-to-lifers, the character of JAG himself emerges. He's surrounded by pals and booked with play-dates, but his loneliness is only growing. His pull towards the social web is compulsive, his need to shop for the next hook-up is constant, his separation from his son is never-ending, and his desire for connection remains dangerously starved. Like JAG's own sudden revelation that constant online contact and overlapping cyber-relationships have added up to nothing, all these compelling characters suddenly disappear from the plot like ciphers: We're dropped into a sudden awareness of a profound emptiness in JAG that's been gathering steam while we were paying attention to everything else--a void growing ever more hungry, angry, and violent under the surface.

Badbadbad draws on styles and themes from familiar stories and older literatures. The novel sustains the straight-talk trashiness of 20th Century pulp, the sex-romp identity games of Kathy Acker, and the dark inevitability of Giovanni's Room. But it considers an absolutely current societal malaise: the twin-headed hydra of selective isolation and social media addiction. In the process, badbadbad reveals a new brand of lust for life and a new kind of lost generation.

Recommended for collections of contemporary fiction, literary fiction, small press fiction, emerging authors, neo-pulp fiction, fiction about the internet age, and Southern fiction.


Find badbadbad on New Pulp Press here.

Find more about this "transmedia" novel (and the 32-city book tour) on the author's website here.