"Most people are a little overwhelmed when they first come in," says Alissa Nielsen, curator and librarian of the Zine Archives and Publishing Project (ZAPP) at Seattle's Richard Hugo House literary center. She's right.
A new feature on the ever-broadening Hugo House landscape, ZAPP hopes to have as electric an impact as its name. Adorned with tapestries on the ceiling and cushy couches in the corners, the funky basement space is wall-to-wall zines. Bookshelves (or rather, zine-shelves, specially designed and built by Hugo House facilities manager Jeb Lewis) line every available inch. It's a cool space — an alternative space — which, in addition to the physical fact of being underground, perfectly mirrors the counterculture, do-it-yourself zine ethos.
For those unfamiliar with zines, Nielsen points to Factsheet Five, a zine reference and review magazine, which offers the following definition: "a small, handmade, amateur publication done purely out of passion, rarely making a profit or breaking even. Sounds like 'zeen.' "
While these plucky periodicals are on the cutting edge, their spirit is not unprecedented, as noted by ZAPP volunteer Abby Bass.
"Today's zines bear more than a passing resemblance to the underground press publications of the 1960s and '70s," she says, "which were often printed on cheap newsprint and distributed through underground bookstores." But while those zine predecessors were largely political in nature, the current trend of punk publishing finds no subject too obscure, no presentation too bizarre.
The more than 7,000 zines housed at ZAPP exhibit tremendous variety in format and topic. Some are professionally printed, glossy affairs; others are handwritten and guerrilla-photocopied at work. Some have the look and feel of your average alternative weekly, others arrive scrolled up in a prescription pill bottle.
An old card catalog houses an entire collection of "mini-zines," those too tiny to fit in the standard shelving. Subject categories include diet ("Food Geek"), humor ("Hot Snot Pot"), race and ethnicity ("Secret Asian Man"), work ("Temp Slave"), personal ("Death & Tortillas"), and countless more. Circulations range from 20 people to that of a major magazine. And it's not just an American thing — ZAPP has an expanding foreign-language section.
The idea of a "typical" zine is anathema to the movement, but in the interest of an example let's examine "Dishwasher." Authored by "Pete Dishwasher," it's made up of 12 pieces of midweight paper, stapled and folded into a 5-1/2" by 8-1/2" booklet.
The cover (of thicker stock) features a sepia-toned photo of disgusting, dirty dishes. At the top of the first page is the handwritten note: "An introduction? Well, my name is Pete and I wash dishes." We soon learn that Pete is hell-bent on working dishwashing jobs in all 50 states, a quest that serves as the inspiration for his writing.
Alongside scrawled letters to friends and essays from different cities (Boston, New Orleans, Little Rock) are haphazardly placed faux fortune cookie notes ("Clean your own damn dishes and no one gets hurt"), comic strips by fellow dishwashers, cut-and-pasted excepts from books that reference the job, "What's New in Dishwasher Fashion," and an illustrated guide to a cast of coworkers. It's funny, it's insightful, and it holds your attention through the graveyard shift.
So what is the driving force behind the growing throng of zine writers?
"There are different motivations for all zine creators," Nielsen says. "Some people want to have total control over the creation and distribution process. Some people have personal and political views they want to share. Some people just like writing and want to show it to other people."
Despite the far-reaching and titillating range of publications, the Hugo House's zine project has only recently taken off. Originally called the Zine Archives Project (ZAP), for several years it was a bit of an afterthought.
"It didn't have much of a budget," programs and education manager Trisha Ready says, "so it lay fallow for a while."
Nielsen adds, "We had a really amazing collection, but it wasn't being nurtured or cultivated. Curators came and went, and it was divided from the rest of the house in a strange way."
Acting on a belief that all aspects of the Hugo House should thrive and intersect, Ready shuffled some budget resources in ZAP's direction. ("It's not new money — we're just using existing library money in a more expansive way," she says.) Nielsen, who created her first zine at age 14, began curating the space last June and is paid for 15 hours a month.
"Alissa has brought a lot of energy and a new group of dedicated volunteers," Ready says. She also brought an additional "P." Reflecting a new, broadened objective, the Zine Archives Project added "and Publishing" to its name and offers workshops on how to create and publish zines. The next one is tomorrow.
The first of such events (held Feb. 27) featured a workshop on "microscopic publishing," titled "How to Make a Zine in an Hour," followed by a slide show/reading called "The Slide Rule." Based on the concept "comics off the page," the latter featured comic writers projecting their work on screen and providing vocal animation.
Tomorrow's ZAPP event will follow a similar workshop/reading format. Wannabes will hone zine-crafting skills with Moe Bowstern, creator of "Xtra Tuf," a zine about working on fishing boats. After the workshop, prominent local zinesters and artists will hold forth on the topic of "Work."
"So many artists and writers work in solitude," Nielsen notes, "I wanted to build a space that not only archived zines, but helped people learn from each other as they create and produce them." It's a sentiment that reflects the Hugo House's mission of providing a place where local writers can commune, converse and question.
The long hours in the Hugo House basement seem to be paying off. ZAPP's February workshop was deemed a success, with 80 people in attendance and raising more than $300 for the project.
A printing press has been donated, and grants are in the works requesting copy machines and other essential tools of the zine trade.
One volunteer is entering all the titles into a cross-referenced computer database; another is organizing the shelves alphabetically by category. A series of zine-making classes for teens is planned, and ZAPP has been asked to host 16 hands-on workshops at Bumbershoot this summer. As Nielsen puts it, "A lot of people believe in zines."
Zine believers also argue that in addition to being a cool mode of self-expression, these mini-but-mighty magazines have real literary value in the long term.
"Newspapers, television, and mainstream magazines are just a few things that document our times," Nielsen says. "But there are lots of ways of showing what happens in an era. I think it's important to see other points of view."
Brangien Davis: firstname.lastname@example.org