It's Spokane in 1994. A 15-year-old girl and her best friend find a copy of the now-defunct Factsheet Five at Boo Radley's and are enthralled by the lists of "zines" they'd only heard about from their older and wiser friends. They frantically search the pages, using a highlighter to mark the zines they want to order. Their minds expand with possibility and discovery as they giggle. If other kids were doing it, why couldn't they? So they started making their own zines. They weren't great, but they were 100 percent their own. It was a subversive, revolutionary feeling -- they could publish their thoughts and no one could stop them. Not parents, not teachers, not bosses, not politicians. The world suddenly seemed bigger and filled with possibilities.
As you've probably guessed, that was me. Growing up here in Spokane, I was starved for something that fulfilled my desires for self-expression and subversive thought. Zines satisfied both nicely -- and continue to do so. And despite more instances of zines meeting mainstream culture over the past two decades, they remain an underground movement -- like a secret society.
Zines are self-published (self-photocopied might be more accurate) periodicals that tend to have a relatively small (OK, sometimes tiny) circulation. They can be focused on just about anything, from the daily life of the author to the author's love for a specific band to political issues and causes and so on. Some are shocking, others a little on the dull side. All, however, are the product of one individual human being, placing them in stark contrast to the rest of the media, which seems to get bigger and blander by the day.
Opening Your Journal -- Although people have been self-publishing and distributing zines for decades, their direct antecedents are generally thought to be music fanzines from the '60s and '70s, along with the poetry chapbooks that came out of the Beat Generation. The movement traces its spiritual roots, however, to the longstanding practice of journal-keeping. The major innovation of zines, however, is that they are meant to be read by other people.
In the last 20 years, the number of voices amplified by zines has exploded. The punk movement of the 1970s and the riot grrrl movement of the early '90s are just a couple of the underground currents that fueled the rise of zines. Still, it's a relatively new literary form.
Bee Lavender, a 32-year-old full-time Seattle writer whose zine is called A Beautiful Final Tribute, remembers that when she and her friends began to make zines in 1984, they didn't even have a vocabulary for the phenomenon: "We just called them underground newspapers."
There really are no rules regarding the making of zines. If you can type or write and have access to a copy machine, you can make a zine. Some are simple, white paper affairs stapled together down the center; others have handmade paper covers, woodblock print art and thick, colored pages.
Few zines make money; that's not the point. Many kids and adults begin to write zines when they have few other outlets. Aubrey Harrison, a 19-year-old Portland student, remembers that "the schools I've attended in my adolescent and adult lives have offered little to no opportunities for development of any writing that isn't academic or analytical."
Many zines feature politics, most of which are voices from the left that are rarely found in the mainstream media. Nicki Sabalu from Otis Orchards, who publishes Slipshot, believes that so many zines are political because "it's such an easy forum to spread ideas that aren't discussed by most media outlets." She says zines helped her learn about things like "gender identity, anarcho-feminism, racism and white privilege, veganism, empowerment in surviving abuse situations through communication, and so much more."
Learning from zines can be an interactive process. Where else can you write to the author of something you read and get a prompt response? Zines offer a place for any sort of political argument to be voiced, and a chance to come into contact with others who feel the same way.
Amy Bechtold of Spokane is the author of the zine Spin Cycle, and she likes the political aspect of both reading and writing zines. "It gives me a place to read how other people stand on issues and a place to make my own commentary on what I believe without being censored."
In this way, some zines may even echo the pamphlets and tracts produced in the time of the Revolutionary War -- publications often viewed at the time as radical.
Spokane's Ellen Adams, a 16-year-old student, believes that the very creation of zines is a political act, because "it fervently exercises our right to freedom of the press."
The Creative Urge -- The thing that attracts most people to zines is the do-it-yourself aspect. In a culture where news and media outlets are controlled by a rich and powerful few, having your own media outlet is an exciting proposition. It also appeals especially to adolescents, who often rightly feel that their voice is being heard neither by their parents nor in the culture at large. (In fact, the majority of zine writers start out in their teens or twenties.)
But perhaps it's the very act of cutting and pasting or creating the more elaborate presentations that satisfies a deep need to work with our hands. In modern life, it's easy to go weeks or months without really making anything, and zines may share something with the likes of woodworking or gardening in that regard. If Martha Stewart was raised on punk rock instead of white bread, she'd probably have a wicked zine.
Zines are, in many ways, the antidote to disposable consumer culture. People often love them because they're not high-tech and fast-paced. They take considerable thought and effort to create and rarely offer light or fluffy reading. Yes, like any art form, there are good ones and not-so-good ones, but the ethic behind them is uniform.
A lot of the satisfaction in making zines comes from the contacts that are made and the spread of ideas. Aubrey Harrison, 19, agrees that the DIY aspect of zines "provides a refuge that emphasizes not profits and demographics, but people and ideas. Publishing houses are owned by corporations, so it's nice to be able to know that you're supporting individuals rather than organizations."
Samantha Marcelo, 23, agrees: "The DIY aspect is my favorite part. It thrills me to think that anyone out there with an opinion can make it accessible to so many people. It's encouraging and empowering to think that if I have something to say, I just have to put it in a zine and it will be read."
Out of the Underground -- While zines are a nationwide phenomenon, the Pacific Northwest is considered the heartland -- especially Portland and Seattle. (Must be all that rain and coffee.) In both cities, zines have become a part of the fabric of cultural life, right up there with live music and books. Spokane and the Inland Northwest have plenty of zine creators, but not much of a support system, making it perhaps a little too underground. Hopefully, that can change.
Elliott Bay Books in Seattle offers a full zine section. Paul Constant oversees it and reports that zines sell well there, adding that they are a natural fit for an independent bookstore.
Kevin Sampsell, who runs the zine and small press sections at Powell's Books in Portland, says zines and small press titles have been very successful there as well. "Independent bookstores that wish to carry zines need to meet and talk to the small press and zine people," Sampsell says, adding that, "bookstores should do more events with small press authors and zinesters, too. We've done a good number of them here at Powell's, and they almost always get large crowds. It's a great way to show support for the local writing community and to get new people into your store."
If you think Spokane might be too conservative to embrace the zine scene fully, consider Salt Lake City. Not exactly known as a liberal outpost, that city's public libraries carry zines in every branch. In many cities, shops often give up a corner of their space to zines, alternative media or small press titles that readers can buy or borrow. Few stores in the Inland Northwest carry any sort of zines, but more zine distribution is happening at concerts, especially at the new Sole location, and there is talk of a zine center opening soon. For a vital zine scene to thrive in Spokane, some shopkeepers need to jump in and start carrying zines and holding zine readings.
A Portal on the World -- Various local zinesters recall that before the Internet, they learned about zines by chance. Kate Elsa, a 22-year-old from North Idaho who publishes Artichoke, remembers that she was introduced to zines by friends and older siblings and by reading articles in magazines like Sassy. She said it was important that she knew that "not everywhere was like it was in Sandpoint."
Spokane's Adams found the book Zine Scene in a local library and fell in love with the idea of zines. She learned to just focus on creating. It also brought her into contact with a larger zine community, something difficult to find in a place like Spokane. Sabalu remembers that her sister found a random zine at a record store downtown and that introduced her to zines. She recalls that tables at basement punk shows were the only place to find zines around town -- which is still mostly the case.
Lavender believes that growing up in a culturally isolated place forced her to create her own culture. "If I hadn't had something to fight against, I would never have bothered to become a writer. I think it is important for people to know that wherever they are, they should have hope."
Sampsell recalls living in Spokane in the late '80s and early '90s and that there were more places selling zines and supporting a small-press, independent scene than there are now. Yet he remembers that he still was "the only one doing that stuff there at the time, and people weren't sure what to make of me."
Therapeutic Soul-Baring -- Why do people continue to make zines when they make no money and take up large chunks of time and energy? Bechtold likes the aspect of "getting things off my chest and having people tell me how they relate to what I wrote about." This is a sentiment reflected throughout the zine community. Zines can be a form of personal therapy -- even of venting, or expressing one's self honestly in the hope that others will be able to relate. Many zine-makers are relieved and delighted to realize that others think the way they do, and many form true friendships through zines and the mail they generate.
And as the popularity of reality TV can attest, people's appetites for peering into others' personal lives are nearly limitless. Zines are certainly not founded on the kind of mean-spirited manipulation or schmaltziness often employed by TV execs, but there is a lot of voyeurism involved. The unspoken arrangement seems to be: "You tell me your secrets, I'll tell you about mine."
Still, in the face of media consolidation and in an era when it's easier to follow the pack in silence, singular and genuine voices are a rare but crucial part of the cultural landscape. Zines may be an underground art form, but it's flourishing right under our noses. The woman you chat with at the coffee shop may make a zine. Your UPS guy might even publish one. Right now, as you are reading this story, your teenage daughter may be wrapping up an edition of her latest, most radical zine.
So what are you waiting for? As Lavender says, "Find some sharp scissors. Trust yourself. You're a genius."
Miranda Hale is author of the zine The Pleiades. She also has a distro called Burning the Letters (distro.burningtheletters.net). She lives in Spokane.