Somerville, Massachusetts is a quaint little town. Known more for Sanborn maps and Fluff marshmallows, the blue collar city doesn’t exactly scream hip. There are more taverns per square mile than coffeehouses- and everyone has their favorite. Redbones, the Independent, Highland Kitchen.
So it’s no surprise that gossip- morning or otherwise- is more likely to transpire over a cold one than a piping hot cappuccino. But there is another side to Somerville than Little League games, body shops, and Bud Light. Enter Papercuts.
Although it’s the most recent resident to call Somerville home- it planted its roots March 14, 2010- the zine library has been home to punk rockers, political activists, and Sharpie enthusiasts alike for time immemorial. But with the cost of living high and volunteers stretched thin, business promises to be anything but usual.
“The cost of living is very high in Massachusetts,” one volunteer writes in an email. “Many of us have to work at our ‘day jobs,’ in addition to school and other responsibilities. So it is very hard to fill the shifts.”
With high turnover and with very few patrons compared to their previous venue- according to the email, at one time they received at least five patrons a day at their old location- Papercuts is just one of many alternative libraries struggling in a bleak economy, and they aren’t alone.
While there aren’t any hard statistics on how many zine libraries (or “infoshops” as they are commonly known) close up shop for good in any given year, because of their minimal budgets and extremely niche role it isn’t uncommon for small shops to disappear and reappear. At any given time, there are hundreds, even thousands of alternative libraries spread out around the world, hosting everything from zines about favorite television shows to info on family planning.
The result is a fluid, chaotic mix of repositories of information, disappearing as quickly as they appear. The larger ones, like ABC No Rio in New York City, manage to hang on with massive financial donations and publicity. Regardless, in the mist of such chaos zine libraries and zine cultures are experiencing a cultural Renaissance.
In January it was announced that New York University’s Fale Library accepted a collection of zines edited and produced by Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill. The Kathleen Hanna Papers are a collection of articles written by Mrs. Hanna during the early to mid-90s. NYU is not alone in its zest for zines- Barnard, Columbia, and Temple University are just a few of the colleges delving into the zine scene.
But for those in the trenches keeping the movement alive, each day is a battle.
Take Jerianne. Like many, she is plugged into the digital age. She emails, she blogs, she Facebooks, spreading the word about Zine World. But it’s not an easy task for the grad student. In addition to all of the above, she writes, mails out issues to paying customers, and generally tries to keep the lights on with her fellow compatriots.
None of this takes into account issues such as school, family and a full time job. So running Zine World isn’t just a passion- it’s a de facto career. And the stress is beginning to show.
“The biggest challenges are time and money,” she wrote in an email. “There’s never enough of either. I try to rely on the help of volunteers, but sometimes people fluke out. As a result, Zine World hasn’t been published as much as I would like.”
Then there is the not so tiny issue of rate hikes. With the price of stamps going up and printing costs rising, publishing a dead-tree zine is becoming harder than ever. According to the United States Postal Service’s own statistics, the price of sending a circular in 1971 was about 22 cents per pound. By 1983 that jumped to almost 45 cents, or $40. It jumped again to 67.7 cents in 1996, and so on.
“I think a price increase is likely in the future,” Jerianne admits. “I hope we don’t lose readers because of it.”
With rates steadily rising, it is no surprise that zinesters are turning to the Web to get the word out- and publish as well. In addition to Jerianne’s there are countless other zines that are either hybrid print-online institutions or are on the verge of going fully online. But just because they’re replacing their ink and their scissors with Macs and Adobe Photoshop doesn’t mean there is any less hassle.
“There are always people who write to me and say they would like to help out,” the Murfreesboro resident says. “But when I contact those same people with specific jobs I need done, sometimes no one wants to step forward. When someone agrees to volunteer and then falls through, the whole publication can suffer or be delayed.”
Overall though, outreach is good for Zine World, and other zines as well. Thanks to the Internet- once thought of as the nemesis of zine culture- writers and publishers alike are reaching wider audiences than ever before. There are entire websites devoted to keeping old zines alive, and e-zines, previously unheard of before the age of dialup, are almost mainstream.
“The Internet is really a tool to promote zine culture,” says Leah Goren of The Motivated Youth, a blog about the arts and culture. “I think zines are just one element of the culture. The culture is really the art making and music and community. So many groups of artists and young people make small publications to supplement the other things they are doing, like art and music and parties.”
And there’s nothing wrong with that.