June 08, 2016 News » Cover Story

Springs zinesters keep it analog in the digital age 

Mightier than the sword

click to enlarge LAUREN MCKENZIE
  • Lauren McKenzie

The zinesters are coming. Sunday, if you wander downtown to Costilla Street between Nevada and Tejon, you'll find them congregating en masse outside Mountain Fold Books, a tiny, 2-year-old enclave of coffee and culture.

They may seem to fit other, more familiar descriptors — hipsters, geeks, punks, literati, etc. — none of which are inaccurate. But on that block, on that day, those various, loosely defined subcultures will fuse into a more singular, albeit perhaps more alien identity — the zinester — because of a shared interest in a somewhat esoteric hobby.

That hobby or craft, or art, or whatever you want to call it, is the zine.

Plucked from the more established word and medium, the magazine, the zine is a slippery beast to define. It may be simpler, in fact, to define what it's not: The zine is not mass-produced; it's not widely circulated; it doesn't contain any (real) ads; it won't run you more than $10; it's likely not made by someone with an impressive degree; and you probably won't find it all that high-brow.

Other than that, the zine is a wide swath of handmade, usually paper publications printed with some smattering of words and images. That smattering can take pretty much any shape, but tends toward poetry, collage, comic, journal, fanfiction, radical manifesto and various other kinds of ephemera.

In practical terms, making a zine pretty much entails collecting a bunch of art and writing from friends, scanning or copying it all into a book-like format, printing, folding and binding it with a hard-to-come-by, long-armed stapler then passing it out to said friends.

Anyone can make his or her own zine, and they have been for a long time. Polemical pamphlets and sci-fi pulp were some of the earliest iterations. Punk zines arose during their corresponding movement in music, as did riot grrl zines during their corresponding movement in feminism. Technological advances abounded over those years, of course, but the zine persisted through and despite them all.

click to enlarge LAUREN MCKENZIE
  • Lauren McKenzie

On Sunday, when the zinesters descend on downtown for the third-of-its-kind Comic & Zine Fest in this fair city, get privy to the rich local history of this culture. But be warned: Such knowledge will not impress at cocktail parties, help you climb the corporate ladder, or line your pockets with anything but old cigarette butts and twisted paper clips.

So if such things hold value for you, kindly set down this newspaper and walk away slowly. But if tearing down oppressive systems by practicing brazen frivolity sounds like a decent way to spend an afternoon, read on.

Ask about the good old days of zine-making in the Springs, and the same couple names will keep coming up.

One is Adam Leech — a 37-year-old dude with the swagger of a teenager. He owns the Leechpit, a vintage record, clothing and pop culture store that moved a few years ago from the corner of Nevada and Dale near Colorado College to the west edge of Old Colorado City. If you've never perused its shelves of eclectic garments and devilish memorabilia, you may know the Leechpit by a curious bumper sticker plastered all over town vowing simply to "Keep Colorado Springs Lame." Leech also is a former music columnist for the Indy (2007 to 2011).

Growing up here in the '90s, Leech was into zines and all the associated trappings (skateboarding, sweaty punk rock shows, etc.).

"In high school I thought I knew everything and just had to share it with the world," Leech reminisces about his first zine, called Purity Through Smut, which, like many, had a radical bent.

"I mean, if you gave a shit, you made a zine about it because that was really the only way to express an idea then," he says. "It was all political in a way, but mostly it was just fun."

According to Leech, that all changed around the turn of the millennium — not necessarily because his crew matured, got haircuts and real jobs, but because of a paradigm-shattering invention: the internet.

click to enlarge LAUREN MCKENZIE
  • Lauren McKenzie

"All of a sudden there wasn't a Kinkos on every corner anymore," he recalls. "So zines kind of died out then."

Of course, some beg to differ. Local printer Aaron Cohick, a year Leech's junior, grew up drawing comic books in a two-traffic-light town in Pennsylvania. He got into small-press printing while at art school in Baltimore, so his interest in zines took off pretty much exactly when the internet did.

"I remember learning how to bind books in the same class I learned what Google was," Cohick says, softly chuckling, perched on an industrial stool in his workspace. He's been Printer of the Press at Colorado College for six years now, teaching students about antiquated typographical techniques and printing posters for various campus events. For him, all these new digital tools changed the conversation about art more than they actually changed his art.

"There's just this raw satisfaction when you make and share a physical object," Cohick says. "It's really a whole separate experience from typing on a keyboard or talking into a dictaphone or whatever other mode of communication."

Distinct media though they might be, the rise of a new one always means the fall of an old one, right? Not necessarily, according to Cohick.

"There's this idea, right, that this resurgent interest in the handmade is a reaction to the digital," he says. "And that's probably true for some people. But I don't really feel nostalgic."

Part of the reason the digital and the analog can peacefully coexist for Cohick is that self-published books are an ever-evolving form.

"Now it's all about, how do we play with these conventions? There's all this cool stuff with paper engineering, as it's called in the field," Cohick explains, rattling off examples like pop-outs, accordion-style books, stitching that exposes the spine and flag binding, which yields a whole bunch of flaps instead of neat pages. "People are inventing new ones all the time, so it's super exciting."

The zine may well be a living genre, but Cohick's colleague, Jessy Randall, devotes herself to cataloguing its detritus. Randall, who curates Special Collections at Colorado College's Tutt Library, first got seriously into zines about a decade ago when fellow librarian Lisa Lister came back raving from a feminist zine conference at Barnard College in New York City.

That's when the Colorado College Zine Collection was established, striving to collect any and all zines made in the American West (including Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Texas and Wyoming).

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"We've got all these books here in the library, like if you want to know what kind of barbed-wire ranchers in Colorado used in the 19th century, we've got that and I'm happy to provide it. But it's closer to my heart to collect these underground kind of publications," says Randall, herself an impressively published but modest poet.

"If nobody saved these little zines, they'd be unfindable forever," she continues, adding that her interest is more than personal — it's also scholarly. "These are the stories mass media doesn't tell. You'll find transgender zines from like 20 years ago when nobody would even publish stories about being gay or anything outside the mainstream. We think it's important to preserve voices that have less support behind them."

Back in 2005, when the CC Zine Collection started up, Randall, Lister and humanities librarian Steve Lawson had the tricky task of tracking down items ostensibly designed to be untrackable. Many zines, both old and new, lack traditionally relevant and readily searchable information, so the trio of librarians went down two avenues: combing old-school distribution sites and spreading their call by word of mouth.

"Distro sites," as they're nicknamed in this abbreviation-loving community, are the low-fi, Amazon-lites for zines. Enthusiasts could find old, rare or distant zines via these distro sites run by guru-esque collectors who'd network at zine fests all over the country. So a good chunk of CC's collection materialized that way.

Another good chunk came from locals who just caught wind of the library's endeavor. Leech's name appears often on the donor log.

Randall says that even though the library has collected tons of new zines over the past few years, there were no new channels for finding them. Until, that is, Mountain Fold Books, came on the scene.

click to enlarge LAUREN MCKENZIE
  • Lauren McKenzie

Regulars simply call it Mountain Fold. Nestled between a frame shop and a hair salon on a revitalizing block downtown, Mountain Fold is a hybrid third-wave coffee shop, small press bookstore, co-working space, music venue and hub for any and all things outside the mainstream.

This is where to go in the Springs if you're hunting for zines made literally yesterday.

Mountain Fold is like a third child to Marina Eckler and Noel Black — two local artists, married, who met while flitting around San Francisco's avant-garde literary scene in the late 1990s. Priced out of that city during the first tech boom, they later tried a soul-sucking stint in New York City. There were hardly enough hours in the day to see their son, let alone make art. Not to mention they got bed bugs, got robbed, and their dog got run over. So the pair quit their respective jobs at big-name cultural institutions to nest in a city better known for its military bases and megachurches than its art scene.

Two years ago, the idea for a small-press bookstore was birthed out of potluck-style poetry readings the couple hosted in their Manitou backyard. That's when Eckler founded Mountain Fold with then-UCCS student Jonathan Fey, who is no longer involved.

"My joking aspiration was to start a bookstore for beautiful art books that didn't have to make money," Eckler says. "All the independent bookstores in town were closing, so I wanted it to be full of books you couldn't find on Amazon."

A $10,000 "ingenuity grant" from Pikes Peak Community Foundation helped turn that joking aspiration into an actual nonprofit run by what's casually known as the collective. (Eckler says it's a "beautifully amorphous" group made up of, as Cohick puts it, "people who do stuff.")

For Black, who serves as "fundraising elf" according to his wife, Mountain Fold was never about earning new income or a snazzy reputation. "We're just kind of fucking with the culture here, you know. That's why we came back here," he says over a triumphant, post-podcast release beer. (Black, who grew up here, co-produces KRCC's "Wish We Were Here" and, full disclosure, about a decade ago wrote about arts for the Indy.)

Black says that growing up with two gay parents (as in, dad's gay and mom's gay too) was a survival game. He'd listen to punk records alone in his room, sure, but in public he was a hockey-playing jock who hung with the popular kids, hoping never to be suspected of any kind of queerness.

"It was like this ultra-secret," Black remembers. "Because I didn't want to get the shit kicked out of me. Also, you've got to remember this was pre-internet so I truly, truly thought I was the only kid in the world with gay parents."

This was also around the time the Springs started to garner its reputation as a bastion of close-mindedness: Focus on the Family moved in, Ted Haggard rose to prominence, and evangelicals became a political force.

"There was this big resistance to it all for a while," says Black. "Then everyone just kind of rolled over. It felt like they were winning."

Now past those self-conscious adolescent years, Black tries to tear down that mainstream conservative culture any chance he gets. One of those chances was a satire rag called Toilet Paper, which Black and Aaron Retka started churning out in 2004. Oscillating somewhere between sassy fun-poking and flat-out sacrilege, Toilet Paper featured such classics as the photo series "Church Kicker" (what it sounds like) and "Church Whipper" (replace dudes kicking with a naked dominatrix whipping).

"And the coolest thing about Toilet Paper was we were blogging really early on," Black says. "So we could communicate with the whole world at a time when the whole world's eyes were on Colorado Springs." That paper folded and was later reborn as Newspeak, which Black says was just as irreverent but a bit more grown-up in its tactics.

During that time, he felt sweet vindication when Haggard plunged into scandal. "We were calling out the closeted queerness of New Life for so long," Black says, a vicious gleam behind his glasses. "Like you'd go in and see these paintings of hunky dudes with honey poured all over them or like this big leather daddy angel sculpture in the foyer. The whole thing was so gay."

But when targets fall, so too do their targeters.

"There was this sense like that culture was in decline and we had had our fun," Black remembers about letting go of Newspeak before moving to New York. "I'm a big believer in beginnings, middles and ends. Once something becomes an institution, it loses its fire."

But he and Eckler do earnestly hope their current project, Mountain Fold, will be a lasting institution. They're aiming to file their application for 501(c)3 tax-exempt status by August then maybe start thinking about a liquor license or later hours or more staffing.

Han Sayles, the place's 23-year-old manager, says she can't imagine a Colorado Springs without Mountain Fold now. When she's not pouring espressos and gossip behind the counter, Sayles makes her own art and same is true for the other two young baristas — Mitchell Macura and Brianna McGrew.

click to enlarge LAUREN MCKENZIE
  • Lauren McKenzie

"This place is a beacon for contemporary arts in the Springs," Sayles says. "When you support us, you support upcoming artists."

For Macura, who plays keys in local band Eros & The Eschaton and books shows for Mountain Fold, it's all about accessibility: "To perform at bigger venues or be on a label, you have to have certain amount of clout, a following and all these resources. So we're just trying to lower that gigantic ceiling."

Mountain Fold is joined on that block by Iron Bird Brewery and Blue Dot Place apartments, two other signifiers of development in what's been dubbed the New South End.

But revitalization does not equal gentrification, by Macura's math.

"It's not like we pushed out of an existing community," he says. "We built where it was honestly pretty vacant."

Macura's bandmate, Kate Perdoni, makes zines under the alias Katey Sleeveless (inspired by a zine out of Minneapolis listing signs of summer punk rock love, one being sleeveless tees.) She says Mountain Fold is critical to getting her zine, Mamá Liberada, out there.

Others will get that chance Sunday at the Zine Fest when 30 vendors are expected to show. Wander through to find a zine by Rosa Byun about why it's cool to try hard, one about falling in love (with another woman) during basic training by Peyton Davis, another on the many uses of gray water by Zac Chapman and a zine of GIFs projected onto the wall by Cameron Barrett — among others.

It's a far cry from Denver's upcoming fest (77 vendors) but for the Springs, this'll be the biggest yet. Perdoni laughs remembering last year in Denver, where she was distributing a bunch of zines by local artists. Some teenagers who had ventured up from the Springs approached her, incredulous that zine-making was going on in their own city.

"They had to go to Denver to see what's happening in the Springs," she said. And though Perdoni has nothing but affection for those fresh-faced adolescents, she has a few choice words for older zinesters who doubt the current scene: "Fuck them. They're just yuppies now so they're not a part of what's going on. It's alive and thriving here in the Springs."

click to enlarge LAUREN MCKENZIE
  • Lauren McKenzie

Buzz around the Zine Fest will only do good things for Mountain Fold, which relies on community support. The collective just started a "rent club" that patrons can join. Membership entails a monthly, repeating donation of whatever amount is doable.

"We're just trying everything possible," Eckler says about Mountain Fold's finances, two years into a five-year lease. She's optimistic that doors will still be open 10 years down the line.

"It's like when you plant something and for whatever reason you get it right," Eckler muses. "Some died but this one was like, 'No, I can live here, send out roots and branches in this direction and that.'"

Her husband embraces ephemerality a little more, but is content to stretch this moment.

"We came here to create a community that would attract other people to come here and stay here until we outnumber the bad people," Black says. "You know, I don't write much poetry anymore.

"This is my poetry project now — living here. It's a lifelong project."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include Mountain Fold co-founder Jonathan Fey, who was omitted in the original version.


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