|The Dream: Working with a cat in a zine shop|
An average indie band once said: modern life is rubbish. And, in a case of rare agreement between Damon Albarn and I, I tend to agree. Much that previously demanded care and attention - conversation, publishing, slagging people off using clever similes - has been undermined by a simultaneously callous and over-calculated age.
So outposts where these outlooks have been shunned are few and far between and should be cherished. Last week, I discovered one such place. Wandering in Amsterdam's famous Nine Streets on holiday last week on a day even David-Blane-mid-ice-block may have described as 'a bit chilly', the discovery of the dubiously named Boekie Woekie was a revelation.
On entering the small bookshop from the cold, you're met with a plethora of vibrant coloured zines, books, pamphlets and postcards. Run by Dutch, German and Icelandic artists, the shop, which first opened in 1986 and carries around 7,000 titles, was founded on the principles of carrying literature regardless of its author's fame. The small shop, located on Berenstraat in the Dutch capital, has two mid-sized rooms wall to wall with self-published books; there's a photocopier for people to re-produce their own work and shelves and shelves of well-merchandised zines.
In the UK, zines, contrary to popular opinion, are not extinct. The onslaught of blogs (including this one, which runs alongside the paper zine) has definitely impacted the number of zines about but a cursory glance at Brighton zine fest or today's Leeds Zine Fair shows that there are plenty still about. However, aside from a handful of shops - including Sister Ray in London, the Punker Bunker in Brighton and Jumbo Records in Leeds - zines are rarely given much space in shops. Zines get little attention, not least because the passion, creativity, time and effort that goes in for little reward is, understandably, hard for many to relate to.
So to stumble on such a dedicated and extensive collection was, in short, astonishing. Not least because the place had a very friendly live-in cat. I was putting my name on the lease before opening a single book.
But then came the problem. I'd be astounded if a bigger collection of pretentious, pseudo-political/philosophical babble existed in one place. The stock was completely inaccessible, from publications with a single unexplained word on each page to unclear streams of consciousness seemingly filling pages to justify the amazing cover on the front. And that's what's so frustrating - so many of the works are beautifully created with handmade covers stitched onto each leaf or folded in new ways I'd never seen before. While some higher thinkers than I would doubtless have enjoyed much on display, I think more would be interested in the funny, heartfelt, personal, creative and downright silly offerings that much of self-publishing has to offer.
And the pricing was ridiculous. The cheapest zine - about 10 sheets of ludicrousness - clocked in at about €6 and the standard price seemed to be around €15. I wanted to buy something but could see nothing of even vaguely decent value for money. Even allowing for a decent sale or return margin for the zine's creators, the prices were excessive. Over-pricing of zines is something that really irritates me. The number of times I've been at a zine fair with someone just looking to buy one or two cheaply to see if they can get into them but a bog standard one is £3 is still too much.
The majority of zinesters do not make zines to make money or even cover costs. The most important element is that people read the work so why, when they're on prime display, is there a prohibitive price tag on them? What's more, surly and shy zinesters, combined with, in Boekie Woekie's case, grumpy service (an unassuming tourist asks about an incongruous Obama lollipop to much sighing) give a passionate pastime an unfair image.
In my day job, I write about retail and constantly see large retail chains attempting to battle the forces of low cost online competition. In the zine world, those forces are even stronger and if zines are to survive long term then disappointing experiences like this should be left behind. Boekie Woekie, while outwardly bearing little resemblance of the near-named Russell Brand opus, was arrogant, over-priced and couldn't see past its own shadow. An opportunity wasted.